Think “elevator music,” and what surely comes to mind is the sonic equivalent of wallpaper, a bland, inoffensive musical background meant to pleasantly ignored while we go about our daily business. In his book “Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong,” however, author Joseph Lanza hums a different tune, one that comes to feel much more aggressive than the soothing tones let on.
“For decades, these companies were churning out different kinds of background music for commercial clients to use,” says artist and radio producer Yowei Shaw. “There have been a lot of scientific studies that show the power of background music to influence and manipulate human behavior. In supermarkets and department stores, they found that if you played slower tempo Muzak you could encourage customers to linger longer in the aisles and buy more things. You could reduce stress and fatigue and boost worker productivity and morale by something called stimulus progressions, where you have fifteen-minute blocks of Muzak that increase in tempo and complexity and then loop it. That struck me as kind of sinister.”
With her new pop-up audio installation “Really Good Elevator Music,” developed while she was an artist-in-residence at Asian Arts Initiative, Shaw decided to turn those subliminally insidious powers to positive ends. “It gave me this idea: why don’t we make our own elevator music in the same utilitarian way but for pro-social reasons? We can play it on elevators and in other public/private spaces where people would normally hear background music, but designed with an explicitly positive goal like promoting community in mind. Not music for music’s sake but music as a tool to be effective.”
“Really Good Elevator Music” was developed under the auspices of Asian Arts Initiative’s Lab, which commissions and supports work by artists interested in nurturing positive change in the organization’s Chinatown North neighborhood. That purpose is explicit in several of Shaw’s pieces. “Sunday Breakfast,” which she created with producer Kyle Pulley, incorporates interviews with men at the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission homeless shelter across the street from AAI’s Vine Street home, while “Graduation Song” eavesdrops on an eighth grade music class’ rehearsal of two Miley Cyrus songs. Aleks Martray’s “What is it becoming?” is a collage of interviews with neighborhood denizens representing multiple languages and cultures, while Alex Lewis’ piece draws attention to our use of weather as a conversation starter.
Shaw’s original plan was to create a cell phone audio tour of the Chinatown North neighborhood, but upon researching other site-specific apps she had a change of heart. “I just didn’t feel like people were experiencing these installations because there’s such a high barrier to entry,” she says. “You need a smartphone, you need to download this thing, you need to go to the place, you have to figure out how to use the software, and on top of all that you’re walking around Philadelphia with your head buried in your smartphone and your earbuds in. I wouldn’t want to do that myself; I don’t think it’s necessarily smart or safe. So that led me to think about places where people are momentarily captive audiences – places where people are waiting.”
She enlisted artist and curator Lee Tusman, a fellow AAI artist-in-residence, to design the installation. She initially wanted to provide as little context as possible for the music, simply leaving postcards outside of the elevators, but upon seeing first-day riders’ confusion she expanded the info and placed the cards inside the cars.
“I always feel like my role when I’m doing exhibition design is to figure out the interface between the public and the work itself,” Tusman says. “An audio work is different from a visual installation because you can’t tune it out. With a visual work – a painting or photograph – you can turn your head and it’s gone. But you have to reckon with audio. For better or worse you’re a captive audience and this music is specifically designed to put you into an immersive environment. We determined to let the audio mostly speak for itself.”
Shaw ultimately collaborated with six musicians and audio producers to create thirteen original compositions, which can currently be heard in two elevators in the Wolf Building at 12th and Callowhill and will soon spread to other sites, including Union Transfer, which will play the compilation between sets. This Friday night, Asian Arts Initiative will host a listening party from 6 to 8 p.m., which will include a discussion of the project and security camera footage from the Wolf Building elevators that gauge riders’ surprised responses.
“We’ve been getting a wide variety of reactions,” Shaw says. “Some people really do not like the music and have strong opinions about it. Other people like certain tracks more than others, and it’s been interesting – I’ve noticed that people tend to like the tracks that have characteristics similar to Muzak, the ones that are more simple, repetitive and soothing, not aggressive or jarring or harsh.”
That includes the work of ex-Man Man member Steven Dufala, whose four “Really Good Elevator Music” pieces follow his habit of recording lo-fi miniatures into his laptop mic in his studio in the Vox Building on 11th Street. “Personally I think his tracks sound awesome in the elevator,” Shaw says. “They’re almost corny because they’re so full of emotion, and I think people are responding very positively to his tracks because they have a lot of similarities to elevator music.”
Dufala has lived and worked in the Vox Building for thirteen years, through his time with Man Man and his visual art work with brother Billy. “Those of us who’ve been here the longest think of it as a vertical neighborhood,” Dufala says. “There’s Chinatown and Callowhill and if you zoom in a little bit more there’s us. There’s a rhythm to the way that things happen on 11th Street on a day-to-day basis that I can pick out in the recordings. Wherever I am twenty years from now I’ll be able to put the headphones on and play these songs and be sitting right back in this chair in this building in this neighborhood.”
Not everyone has reacted positively to the experiment. “I actually got an email the other day from a disgruntled resident at the Wolf Building,” Shaw laughs. “He basically said, ‘Am I to understand that this is going to be playing until March 31? I view my time in the elevator as one of the few precious moments of silence and quiet in my day. Why are you subjecting me to more noise?’ Which I think is fantastic. My view on an elevator is it’s a passive, non-activated space where people turn off, so I wanted to see if we could transform it into time for thinking about new ideas or learning about the neighborhood., But he sees it as a time of refuge, which is interesting.”
Whatever comes of the project, Shaw sees potential for it as a model for engaging people in places where they typically tune out. “At first I thought I wanted to get people to think about this neighborhood and the people in it differently,” she explains. “I don’t know if that’s actually succeeding. I don’t know if our track Sunday Breakfast is going to do anything to affect people’s view of the homeless community in this neighborhood. But I think we are succeeding in getting people to think differently about how they interact in spaces like elevators and waiting rooms and lobbies, these no-activity zones that we all go through in everyday life. This might seem like a small victory, but at the very least people are noticing and experiencing this installation.”
You can listen to a stream of Really Good Elevator Music on the project’s website here.
Asian Arts Initiative, Yowei Shaw