‘What Does Anti-Capitalist Ambient Sound Like?’ Sam Kidel Interviewed

Sam Kidel talks to Lucia Udvardyová about capitalism, Muzak and his upcoming event Customer Service Agent at Cafe Oto. He's also prepared a special ASMR and ambient podcast for tQ, which you can hear below

Sam Kidel’s Disruptive Muzak is an eerie, 20-minute recording, an immersive, atmospheric sound piece woven from disembodied voices of UK call centre workers whose depersonalised hellos linger forever unanswered. In Brexit Britain, precarity and zero-hour contracts, where those in the bottom are ever so susceptible to falling through the cracks, this is the album that became Boomkat’s number 1 last year. Kidel, former member of the Bristol-based Young Echo collective and the now-defunct Killing Sound project, works with Muzak, a seemingly apolitical and now largely obsolete genre (unsurprisingly, Muzak’s eponymously named mother company filed for bankruptcy in 2009), whose sole function is basically functionality – a sonic fluff that aims to entertain, pacify, commodify.

The suggestive properties of working with abstract ambience, as heard on his previous solo outing on Entr’acte, become disrupted by something inherently sad this time. "Are we all becoming Customer Service Agents?" Lonely footsoldiers of capitalism without a safety net? Where vaporwave was basically an audio metaphor of accelerationism, appropriating Muzak as a saccharine tranquiliser of capitalism without necessarily using any critical signifiers which might differentiate it from the music they aimed to borrow from, Disruptive Muzak embodies a more explicitly critical relationship to its source material, and as such it sounds as dystopian as the era it was spawned in. We caught up with Sam ahead of his Customer Service Agent event at Cafe Oto, "dedicated to the precarity, alienation, and entrapment of call-centre work, characteristics that increasingly typify work across many sectors."

Can you tell us about your interest in Muzak and functionalism in music in general?

Sam Kidel: I’m interested because I want my art to do something. Muzak is sneered at partly because it’s a functional art, and that’s a very un-liberal status for any art to have, but the alternative is art that’s vulnerable to co-option. The wind is blowing in the wrong direction to let my work drift.

Muzak is tied to a construction of ambience with liminally suggestive capabilities. Can you talk about this aspect of music, also in connection with its use/misuse by forces of the system?

SK: I think about this quality of ambience as the affective element. I don’t just hear sound in my head, it seems to reverberate around my body. Hairs stand up, muscles relax or contract, my body inclines towards certain movements. This is particularly true of listening to music. I hear a slowly unfurling chord over a soft synthesiser drone, and my chest expands as I breathe in deeply.

The affective aspect of music also pushes my imagination in certain directions. Particular sounds and combinations of sounds evoke associations, from smells to places, images, memories, dreams and all their attendant values and desires. I hear a slow unfurling chord over a soft synthesiser drone and I think of slow-motion videos of clouds, Eno, New Age dolphin animations, banking adverts, aspiration, tranquillity and the fucking Microsoft Windows 95 logo.

The Muzak Corporation built a whole pseudo-science around this affective quality of music. Muzak for workplaces was paced according to predictions of the workers’ energy levels, carefully tuned to avoid critical thought—wailing saxophones were strictly forbidden. Today Muzak has largely disappeared, but the tracks selected for shop playlists, for example, are still carefully chosen to maximise this affective quality of ambience. In this way, all music can now become Muzak. Muzak production has been outsourced, and we musicians become its producers if we accept licensing requests for shop playlists or adverts.

There have been more radical presentations of Ambient Music, like the Musica Ambientale of Walter Olmo (who worked with the Situationists), the writings and practices of members of Ultra-Red in the context of the Rave scene, and Chino Amobi’s recent Airport Music For Black Folk. Zooming out to the broader genre, however, most of that which seems to have been intended as counter-cultural in Ambient Music has been subsequently co-opted by the market forces it was ostensibly opposed to. I’m always reminded of Brecht: "Capitalism has the power immediately and continually to turn the poison that’s thrown into its face into a drug, and then enjoy it".

What is your opinion about the appropriation of various de facto forms of Muzak and synth-based styles (such as vaporwave) by far right groups – the recent emergence of the so-called fashwave, Trumpwave, and the like?

SK: It’s hardly surprising, nostalgia is by definition conservative. I’m less concerned that crap versions of vaporwave are being made by fascists than that vaporwave might be a dead end for leftists. Particularly in the wake of the recent swing to the right in Europe and America, I think we urgently need art that is more specifically critical and less melancholic than the endless re-arrangement of capitalism’s aesthetic detritus that is vaporwave.

The title of your critically acclaimed album, Disruptive Muzak, alludes to a certain diversion, deconstruction of the anaesthetising power of Muzak. What would you say is the subversive potential of music vis-a-vis capitalism and politics nowadays?

SK: I spend a lot of time thinking about the anaesthetic effect of music (and Muzak). That’s Adorno’s influence, for him the pleasures of popular music – melody, repetition, cliche – act as an anaesthetic. There’s some truth in this, and it haunts me. For a while shortly before Disruptive Muzak I barely wrote anything musical, in response to this feeling that music, as a comfort, was a distraction from shared pain, and that shared pain requires an urgent response. But it’s impossible to live without comfort.

When I’m feeling hopeful, I think about how intimate it feels to listen to certain music, how deep it seems to permeate my body, and I think of the energy it can provide to just keep living. My question is: How can these comforts go beyond the anaesthetic and distracting?

I don’t want to talk too generally or prescriptively about music’s subversive potential. I think music does have subversive roles to play, but its roles should be plural, dialogical, and certainly not defined by one person.

In relation to my areas of interest, I think that the relationships between affect, intimacy, and comfort in Ambient Music and Muzak and their deployment in the service of capitalism should be deconstructed and critically reflected upon. Can we listen to Brian Eno’s Music For Airports without romanticising airports and the unequal and uneasy flow of people and capital that they represent? Is there a place for Ambient Music that disrupts our usual flow of thoughts and encourages critical reflection on the omnipresence of capitalist relations in every space we inhabit? Can we share musical intimacy and comfort in capitalist spaces without capitulating to oppressive templates for relating to one another? What does anti-capitalist Ambient Music sound like?

Another topic present in the aforementioned album was the alienation of call-centre workers, their fragile humanity, disembodied diversity of voices/accents. The inherent sadness that one feels from their "loneliness", disposability, replaceability (by another person, or a robot).  Can you talk about your new project which seems related to this, Customer Service Agent?

SK: Customer Service Agent is the name of an event I’ll be presenting at Cafe Oto in London, which might expand into further projects.

I’ve noticed that after listening to Disruptive Muzak, people often articulate a sense of joy at the revenge enacted on these agents of UK government departments that have done real harm to vulnerable people over recent years. Although this is clearly a part of the piece, there’s also a way of listening that is more attuned to the situation of the people answering the phone: their entrapment, loneliness, disposability, and possible redundancy. I always find myself listening to the piece in both of these dissonant modes.

I’m keen to perform in a context that enables these possibilities to emerge, so at Oto I’ll present Disruptive Muzak alongside Jamie Woodcock, a researcher studying call-centre working conditions and resistance. rkss is also preparing a piece that will address tangential themes. Hopefully the Customer Service Agent event will provide the right context to encourage listening with greater solidarity. After all, the position of the Customer Service Agent reflects all of our lives under capitalism.

How would you as an artist relate to this position (the position of a Customer Service Agent and the increasing precarity on the job market in general) nowadays, and have you experienced any changes as of recent?

SK: Artists are rarely institutionalised and salaried under capitalism, so I relate to the position of the Customer Service Agent (CSA) primarily as a former CSA, and as I see parallels in my role as a teacher at a university. In these roles, I have been employed on short-term, zero-hours contracts, and this is a source of considerable anxiety. The combination of precarity and alienation in the role of CSA compounds this anxiety with a feeling of entrapment in having to act as a representative of a government policy, or an insurance company, or a product supplier etc. As a labourer in these Customer Service roles your personality, your humanity can only be expressed within a slim range of possibilities (that are deemed to be conducive to profit). As universities become more ‘Customer focused’, teachers’ roles reflect these characteristics more. Teachers at universities in the UK are in a weak position to resist these changes, given that typical labour contracts have been so informalised/weakened. A world where students are taught by Customer Service Agents is a frightening dystopia. I’m inspired by organisations like the Precarious Worker’s Brigade, who are organising resistance against these changes.

You have prepared a special mix for the Quietus focused on the aforementioned topics. Can you talk about it?

SK: I recently discovered a sub-genre of videos by ASMRtists that role play Customer Service interactions in the typically sensuous, intimate, whispered ASMR style. The mix combines the audio from these videos with some Ambient Music I’ve been listening to.

Tracklisting For Sam Kidel’s Affect (mix)

Bohemian Whisper ASMR – ‘Positive Affirmations’

Terre Thaemlitz – ‘Trucker’

Infinitely ASMR – ‘Customer Service Telephone Role Play’

Gigi Masin – ‘Stella Maris’

ASMR Blue – ‘Let’s Do Your Taxes’

Yves Tumor – ‘Limerence’

ASMR Massage Psychetruth – ‘When Customer Service Puts You On Hold’

Oneohtrix Point Never – ‘Months’

AccidentallyGraceful ASMR – ‘Electricity’s Out. A Customer Service Telephone Role Play’

Markus Guentner – ‘Oceans Day’

Annea Lockwood – ‘Tiger Balm’

Gibi ASMR – ‘Counting Down’

Eliane Radigue – ‘Islas Resonantes’

Customer Service Agent takes place at Cafe Oto on 8 April 2017. Sam Kidel is an alumnus of the SHAPE platform for music and audiovisual art, where he participated with the now defunct project Killing Sound

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