U07 | simon whetham | mall muzak
format : CD ltd to 200 hand numbered copies
release year : 2011
length : 50’08
status : still available
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: info :
In 2009, as part of the ‘All Around You’ season of sonic events co-ordinated by Alastair Cameron at Arnolfini, Matt Davies for The Cube and myself, I was invited to produce a site-specific work for a half-derelict shopping centre called ‘The Mall’ in Bristol. I proposed exploring the space with various microphones and techniques to uncover sounds not normally heard by the shopping public.
Memories of family visits from my childhood portrayed the shopping centre as a crammed and noisy place, every shop a brightly lit shrine, drawing in it’s worshippers, enticing them to empty their pockets of coins and notes…
On returning to The Mall, it was apparent that the current recession had hit hard, with almost half the units with their shutters down, possibly never to open again. The seemingly empty drones of the various processes that keep a structure like this alive could be heard over the scattering of shoppers who had entered, wandering some distance from one active unit to another.
These lifesigns of the building became more apparent behind the scenes, in the corridors that link the units, hidden from view, in the units that were closed, in the storage areas and delivery bays. The drones become more musical and tonal, singing a lament to the financial situation and to better times. The chattering of air conditioning and escalators echoing that of now absent consumers. Coins drop in an empty space, money thrown away….(Simon Whetham)
: reviews :
Simon Whetham : location recordings
Stratified recordings from a Bristol shopping mall, the psychological effects – in the words of the composer – increased by the feeling of abandonment experienced when he visited the area: once a place where families gathered and spent their wages, now a semi-desolate building with a good number of shops out of use due to the consequences of the current economic climate. In strictly musical terms we have surely benefited from the crisis, if you think that we might have endured a compendium of babbling human masses and screaming children underlined by actual muzak (hey, someone releases records with that stuff for real). Instead, Whetham went on to record the mechanical whirring of escalators and elevators, perhaps the buzzing of the electricity, plus anything else that may be found in the recondite corners of such a mentally affecting location (most everything that flows through conduits, for example air conditioning, is a part of the equation). The more “concrete” appearances scattered along the 50 minutes – at one point, coins are thrown on the floor in a symbolic gesture evoking the wasting of money – do not hamper the often impressive streams of droning-cum-clattering materials (with quieter sections in between). Impelling from start to finish, the piece – for some unspeakable reason – appears to this writer as vaguely affiliated to Jim Haynes’ circle of sound art, engrossing aural matters whose huge reverberation is at one and the same time all-encompassing and alarming.
Let’s delve into another from the January bag of Unfathomless field recordings. Here’s the English phonography guy Simon Whetham who has done many good things for the Gruenrekorder label. Here on Mall Muzak (UNFATHOMLESS U07) he offers field recordings captured in a shopping Mall in Bristol. He thereby joins similar enterprising fellows who have made interesting recordings out of buildings and specific urban locales, such as airports – which are really just shopping malls by any other name. I’m always waiting for these people to create a recording that is deeply critical of these modern examples of unwanted capitalistic blight and bloat, but it seems I’ll have a long wait. Whetham’s work here is fascinating , with very long and soaring understated tones which keep varying and shifting, occasionally punctuated with clicks, whirrs and creaks. The record paints a vista of metallic and uninhabited desolation, yet one with a fiendishly attractive aura. Perhaps we are constantly building environments like this (or simply allowing them to happen) which are not only uninhabited but in fact uninhabitable, not fit for humans, animals, birds, or any living creature. Whetham’s photos, treated by Daniel Crokaert, tend to endorse this with their visions of a grisly realm where architecture has sunk into physical decay, and gone mad. The anemic green floor surface (if that’s what it is) is scuffed and distressed, as my mind often is. The framing of the photo emphasizes that we can’t orient ourselves among these strange planes, whether ascending a filthy escalator or peering up at ghastly ceiling tiles. Through all these ruminations, Whetham’s half-mechanical sound art keeps pulsating gently, a flickering robot heartbeat which we cannot turn off.
The Sound Projector
Simon has sourced all the sounds for this release on Mystery Sea offshoot, Unfathomless, at The Mall, Broadmead, Bristol, a three story temple to soulless corporate consumerism in the middle of Bristol city centre. The music, like it’s inspiration, is stark and unsettling to such degree that you are soon left expecting the lady in the radiator to start telling you how everything is fine in heaven.
The hulking monolithic music that Whetham has assembled speaks of the grinding, rumbling, laborious underbelly of the place; a far cry from the plastic happiness that is paraded in the public areas. This is the sound of the internal workings of The Mall; it is the sound of the intestines, the arteries, the lungs and the groaning, rasping joints. This is music that has moved away from it’s (post-)industrial roots to embrace a new metaphor; one of the biology of the machine; a bio-mechanical exploration of the body-economic.
Wonderful Wooden Reasons
In George Romero’s film Dawn of the Dead, the zombies shambling around America in search of fresh flesh to gorge upon have lost almost all of their humanity. Everything but the last few remnants of their previous lives has been obliterated. Yet they are drawn to the mall, as if the final vestige of modern Homo sapiens is to shop.
Romero’s Living Dead ride escalators, push trolleys laden with goods and examine clothes in shops because it is what they did when they were people. They prefer this sealed off, safe, air conditioned temple of consumerism to the world outside.
Why would anyone want the unpredictability of weather when they could have all year round constant temperature and controlled humidity? Why suffer birdsong and leaves rustling in the wind when the air could be filled with beautiful all consuming muzak?
Simon Whetham’s Mall Muzak draws focus away from the shoppers and concentrates on the cocoon they inhabit. A picture inside the cover of this Unfathomless CD shows Simon standing by an escalator with a large microphone. One wonders what the shoppers’ reaction to this was. Did they ask why anyone would want to record a shopping centre? Did they speak to him and ask him what he was doing there? Did they even notice at all?
Recorded largely in storage areas, empty corridors and closed units, an air of dereliction informs the music. Mall Muzak could be seen as a requiem for a lost time when the shuttered shops were brightly lit and thronged with customers. Now in quieter times commercially speaking, the sounds of the mall’s life support systems – heating, ventilation, transport – threaten to drown out the smattering of customers still loyally making the pilgrimage to Broadmead.
In the world of retail everything is in constant flux. When Meadowhall opened as an all weather, undercover, bright, anodyne alternative to proper shopping, the city centre of Sheffield went into decline. Shops were boarded up and abandoned. Suddenly a place I remember as being a thriving, interesting experience as a child was transformed into a semi-desolate ghost town.
Rather than be governed by the weather, rather than get a bit wet in the rain or buffeted by the breeze, people elected to spend their time, and money, indoors. You could buy beautiful big posters of woodland scenes from the Athena shop too if you really did crave nature.
Whetham’s single long track bathes us in the hum of the structure’s processes. Occasionally a tiny window opens and we hear coins drop or some activity in a storage area a long way away down an empty corridor. Always the drone of the artificial closes around us once again, like the feeling of being in the house for too long and not getting out into the fresh air.
I read a review that said if the muzak in shopping malls was really like this it would be worth visiting more often. Well it is really like this! It’s a matter of listening into the corners and the hidden places. Listening beyond the throng and into the heart of the building. Listen.
The Field Reporter
This review is being written and posted on Black Friday. In the United States, Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving, the day during which retailers hope to “go into the black”. It begins with a blitzkrieg of ads, midnight sales and early (3 a.m.) openings. Thousands of shoppers line up outside anchor stores, hoping to take advantage of outrageous bargains and limited stock. Many people are trampled when the doors open; some are even killed.
Mall Muzak is the perfect anti-Black Friday disc, and for people outside the United States, the perfect anti-holiday disc. It was recorded at a mall in Bristol, but it could have originated at any “half-derelict” mall in the world. It’s a product of the recession, a wordless manifesto for uncertain times, a tabula rasa for the projection of our consumer uncertainties.
Today the malls are filled and bustling, the symbolic metaphor for everything that is not a storybook holiday. Christmas tunes blare from unattended speakers. Customers swear at beleagured part-time workers. Children are dragged by distended sweaters. Stockholders hold their breath. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
Simon Whetham’s skill is to turn the foreign into the familiar and the familar into the foreign. His mall is more like the mall of the non-shopping season: a mall of unwanted goods, dissolved hopes and broken dreams. In the Bristol Mall, half of the stores have been shuttered. The corridors are so deserted that one can hear the sound of footsteps. Whetham recorded the sounds of “air conditioners, escalators, storage areas and delivery bays” – the noise beneath the noise, the mall beneath the mall, the muzak that is always present, but seldom heard. In so doing, he found something simultaneously soothing and unsettling: the everyday whirr and hum and clang of the machines going about their business.
The piece takes the form of a single, constantly evolving drone, disparate elements blended to form a seamless composition. Over the course of 50 minutes, listeners are treated to a series of tonal movements that border at times on the musical. This manipulation of source material sets Whetham apart from other field recording artists. The sonic layering tells a fuller story than the samples would have accomplished alone.
But what story? The interpretation is up to the listener. Is the dropping of coins ten minutes into the piece – the first clear human intrusion – a condemnation of commerce, a lament for lost revenue, or an offering, like coins thrown into a fountain, for better days? Are the muffled human voices that appear at the two-thirds mark a welcome sound – listen, we’re not alone! – or forlorn? Is the bird that appears toward the end an avian captive that was drawn in by the smell of food and never learned to leave, or is it the sound of nature, heard through a temporarily open set of glass doors? Is the deserted mall a place of fear, a Dawn of the Dead nightmare, perhaps a Shaun of the Dead shuffling? Or is it only now, in its time of collapse, coming into its own?
The interpretation of the piece is less important than its impact. In Mall Muzak, Whetham has catalogued a previously unexplored side of the modern mall, translating its best-kept secrets, exposing its intricately carved undercarriage, its proudest and humblest sounds, in such a way as to add an unforseen gravitas. Beneath the Macy’s and J.C. Penneys and Abercrombie and Fitches, perhaps there was something worth loving after all, something so subtle that it could only be appreciated in a state of deterioration. And if this is true, as unlikely as it may seem, we would be lessened by its absence
The Silent Ballet
Anyone who has ever suffered from mall fatigue will find themselves right at home in the soundworld captured by Simon Whetham at the Broadmead Mall in Bristol. Beneath its shiny, anodyne surface Whetham plumbs the corridors, shafts, vents and place where the escalator stairs disappear and serves them up in all their dreary, droning, glorious monotony. You are here, but here is nowhere. Unsurprisingly, it is not listed on the mall´s “things to do” site.
These days it seems if Simon Whetham is everywhere, now with a release on Unfathomless. For this one he made field recordings in The Mall, Broadmead, Bristol. We see a picture of him on the insert, holding up his microphone, near the escalator. Shopping is not an activity I enjoy very much, nor shopping centers, perhaps for that reason that they always buzz with activity. People, ventilators, escalators, and above muzak. I am not sure if Whetham feels the same about malls, and calls his release ‘Mall Muzak‘, with a sarcastic undercurrent, or perhaps even considers this to be alternative muzak for shopping malls, but somehow I think this is all not the case. His piece (lasting almost fifty minutes) is a musical survey of activity going on in malls. Exactly the ventilators, escalators, the eternal buzz. He captured the whole lot and put this into a great musical piece of buzzing and humming tones, occasionally with the obscure sounds of objects falling, pushed to the faraway background.
Although I didn’t hear Whetham do much beyond what he usually does, I think this was a pretty good CD, perhaps even one of the best I heard from him so far. Minimal yet always changes in smaller details and throughout making an excellent form of new muzak – now, if malls would play this I’d be around them more. Perhaps.
Frans de Waard