It oozed from speakers hidden in elevators and doctor’s office. A sound so placid that you could ignore it, the euphonious tones of strings, the wordless ahhhing of a choir of anonymous people who were, no doubt, the whitest people on earth. It was the sound of pop songs turned into background music, stripped of their words and passions. I’m talking about Muzak, that ubiquitous radio of the 60s that died in the 90s. I hear its mellifluous sounds and I’m immediately transported into a realm of balmy bliss. The world turns as soft as lace, gently colored by pastel tones. I can even taste the music itself. It has the chalky sweet flavor of Pez candy, oblongs of sugar that dissolve on the tongue. Colorful, but flavorless. It numbs like novocaine, that symphony of vibraphones and string swells. It was years before I found out that The Girl from Ipanema was an actual song, with real lyrics. Cry Me a River was a jazz standard, and not a vaguely somnolent lullaby.
I think I heard that music more than most people because I was a child of a dentist, and my father would play that music constantly, even on the car stereo. He would hum bits from the songs, a meaningless but soothing cascades of la-de-de-das as he worked on the yard or on his car. Hearing that music immediately takes me back to his office, with its motorized chairs that went up and down, heavy with the smell of dental plaster, its shiny cabinets full of gauze and cotton. I would hear Muzak when I visited his office, masking the sounds of teeth being drilled. Daddy’s office was in a particularly rough section of Northwest DC, full of liquor stores and sub-shops. There was an old movie theater that was converted into a church called Fishers of Men nearby. A fish shop full of aquatic carcasses on chipped ice was on one corner. A barbershop full of regulars, including members of Nation of Islam devotees, was on the same block. The alley behind Daddy’s office was full of people shooting up drugs and/or bullets. (One time, a stray bullet flew into office; luckily no-one was there). There was a homeless man in the neighborhood that everyone called Two Quarters, because he would ask, “Do you have a quarter?” And when you said “No,” he would reply, “Do you have two quarters?” Daddy’s office was an oasis, full of dental care pamphlets and syrupy-sweet Muzak.
There was a local station in nearby Silver Spring that specialized in playing that kind of music, mixing in such easy-listening giants as the Carpenters and Engelbert Humperdinck into the vast Sargosso of floating music. (To this day, the voice of Karen Carpenter haunts me, her placid contralto singing about masquerades and starlight). The station was called WGAY, which, of course, was a major joke among my elementary school friends. WGAY had a building proudly displaying its letters in Georgia Avenue in utter obliviousness. The word gay in the late 70 was in a cultural limbo land in the late 70s/early 80s. There were still people who stubbornly held onto the old definition and wrote Sternly Worded letters that objected to the Homosexual Agenda hijacking a word that described genial bonhomie. Perhaps because of this, Muzak and Easy Listening music is indelibly linked to my burgeoning, hidden sexuality. “Gay” meant the soporific, tranquil sounds of Carpenter’s voice and the perverted flamboyance of a shameful lifestyle. Is there a smidgen of a Pavlovian sexual response when I hear an instrumental version of What the World Needs Now? Maybe, maybe not.
This connection to Muzak is at the heart of my interest in ambient/quiet music. I remember hearing the Brian Eno Ambient series and having my mind blown. It was music that immediately put you into a mood, and those moods weren’t restricted to the anodyne end of the spectrum. They could be sinister and otherworldly as well as soothing. Sometimes, they could be both, like the dual meaning of the word gay. Ambient/environmental music is activates my Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. I feel like inside one of those glass paperweights, the kind with bubbles and streaks of abstract colored shapes frozen in them. I drift, I dream, enveloped in a sound bath. The ambient music I love is heavily textured, full of swirls and eddies and sound effects, full of obscurantist titles.
My profile name, across many different platforms, is ethereallad, a name that reflects my love of things beautiful and abstract. My writing tries to invoke the feeling ambient music inspires in me: vaporous, inchoate and hypnotic.
My Kofi link is here: ko-fi.com/craiglaurancegidney