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V/A - Incidental Amplifications

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Artist: V/A

Album: Incidental Amplifications

Label: Room40

Review date: Jun. 11, 2006

George Squier’s Muzak (founded all the way back in 1934) is still piped into the ears of shoppers all over the world, but only in Japan does the company continue to proffer the bland instrumentals that made the brand so notorious; in the US, and its other markets, Muzak has branched out to use preexisting recordings, a move that’s made the company’s work undoubtedly more popular, but has yet to rid them of the distasteful reputation that spawned the derisive codification of an entire genre of music. Lawrence English and Lloyd Barrett at the Room40 label, in order to redefine the aural Australian shopping experience, put out a call to artists, asking them to contribute tracks that would survive under, behind, or in direct opposition to Muzak’s usual reach in Brisbane’s retail kingdoms. The resulting collection of music was played at numerous malls and shopping areas throughout the city in the summer of 2005, at attempt to both awaken a new sense of aural awareness in the shoppers, via the cognitive dissonance of the interruption of the music that, due to Muzak’s diligent research, surrounds and affects people in ways most fail to fully realize.

In CD format, Incidental Amplifications obviously doesn’t allow the listener to experience the full effect of the installation, though it serves well as a document of the contributions and is none too shabby as a standalone album. The responses to English and Barrett’s call vary in both tone and approach, but seem to fall into one of two camps. There are those artists who chose to work in a more conceptual fashion within the scope of the installation, and those who chose to emulate Muzak’s claims of creating aural architecture, redefining the atmospherics of the shopping locale with textural ambience. While some of the latter group produced some interesting material – and the thought of shoppers squeezing produce under the blanket of tracks like Thembi Soddell’s “Watching” is a delightfully naughty one – the more conceptual are more satisfying, even when removed from their physical components.

Chris Watson’s field recording of an airport runway and the songs of its neighboring birdlife is an excellent beginning to the disc, and was probably a jarring soundtrack to most customers’ retail endeavors. Aaron Ximm, echoing Steve Reich, works a stereo phase of a sales pitch into a disorienting discourse. Terre Thaemiltz’s “Millenial Muzak” is the disc’s best entry, a recording of the ambience of another shopping mall, complete with public address announcements, interrupted by hip hop that may or may not have been present in the sound’s original setting. The track, pumped through the speakers at some urban shopping enclave, must have been the most subliminal of the pieces, and, in that sense, the most astute interruption of the daily aural anesthesia of the retail experience.

Whether Incidental Amplifications altered the shopping patterns of the customers who encountered the installation that summer is unknown, but one would hope that the shift in sonic dynamic made the patrons, if nothing else, more aware of their surroundings and the subtle cilia of the commercial system which guide us through our shopping experience each day.

By Adam Strohm

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