For your new record 'Silicon Ear' you broke into a maximum security Google data center, be it virtually, through “mimetic hacking”. Can you explain what you did exactly?
Sure. Google recently released photographs and a Google Street View walkthrough of this data center in Iowa, and I used these to make a model of the space in a piece of software that simulates the reverb of spaces based on room dimensions and a floor plan that you draw in (the software is called RaySpace). I then played a live performance through this simulated space, and the recording is presented as the A side of 'Silicon Ear'.
Did you have any experience with recreating the acoustics of specific places? I can imagine that this data center brought along quite a few specific challenges?
I’m not a particular expert. It’s a relatively basic simulation, using commercially available software. The software I used only allows one level of a room to be modelled, whereas the data center has two levels: one with rows of server and computer racks that are not as high as the whole room, and another above which is mostly empty space up to the ceiling. I had to model these separately and then mix them for a more accurate sound. I’m sure there are more precise tools and methods out there, but my aim was to get as close as possible using the tools I had available!
For the other piece on the record - Voice Recognition DoS Attack - you designed a generative audio patch which messes with voice recognition software. How does that work?
It works by exploiting a problem with contemporary voice recognition called the ‘cocktail party problem’, where there are many voices audible at the same time, and a human voice can pick out a single voice from the crowd and recognise the voice and the words being spoken, but voice recognition has not been able to do that effectively so far. The software I made replicates this situation by deploying many phonemes (small chunks of speech) at many pitches very quickly, so that voice recognition tries to identify consistent voices to analyse and transcribe, but cannot identify individual voices from the noise effectively. If you play the patch at the same volume as your voice while you’re speaking, voice recognition is jammed. The musical piece that’s the B side of the record,Voice Recognition DoS Attack, is a recording of a slightly adapted version of this software, that deploys musical sounds as well as phonemes to create a piece of music using the same system.
Your acclaimed LP 'Disruptive Muzak' is built up around the callcenter, a setting I understand you are very familiar with?
Yes, I worked in various call centres for 9 years!
For an outsider a callcenter might appear to be a rather uninspiring place: what is it that drove you to incorporate it into your artistic practice?
I guess after working in call centres for so many years, the call centre got under my skin. I often found myself reciting the scripts in my time off like they were songs that were stuck in my head, and dreaming of weird gravity-less call centres in my sleep. The call centre was also discussed a lot in British politics around the time I was developing Disruptive Muzak, particularly in critiques of call centres that people on benefits were forced to call in relation to their benefits – you can see an example of this in the film I, Daniel Blake, where the protagonist is on hold calling a call centre for a few key minutes of the film. There’s something about the call centre that encapsulates the calculated cruelness and exploitation inherent to contemporary capitalism.
The concept is as straightforward as it is ingenious: you call up a callcenter and instead of listening to music while on hold, you play similar music composed by yourself to the operators, recording their reactions which then become part of the piece. How did you come up with this?
I was inspired by a political action that I took part in, where protesters called the Home Office persistently for a whole day, protesting the scheduled deportation of someone who had been tortured before coming to the UK. They were going to be deported back to the same dangerous situation. Faxes and emails were sent to the office explaining the protest, but callers were advised to just call up and waste the time of the people who answered the phone, to stop the office from being able to process any work that day. Time-wasting seemed to be such a powerful tool against the call centre – the office would be completely demobilised. Playing the same hold music callers have to listen to back to the call centre workers came to me as an extension of this tactic.
Do you have any personal highlights among the calls you made?
Yes, my favourite was one where the worker was on the call for about 3 minutes, occasionally saying ‘hello?’ to presumably satisfy their line manager who might be listening in, but staying on the line, just listening. That one was great but didn’t really translate on the record itself (it was mostly silence on the other end of the line). My favourite on the record is the worker who answers, a bit sarcastically: “the music’s very nice, but is there anyone there?”.
Did you compose your take on muzak specifically for this project, or did it precede the “disruptive muzak” concept?
I was making ambient music a lot around this time, and had a folder filled with sketches and tracks, some of which I adapted and integrated for Disruptive Muzak once the idea crystallised. I had been hoping, for a while, of finding a way to present this music in a way that connected with ambient music’s association with capitalist aesthetics and technologies. Once I had this idea, it felt like the right way to present the music I had been working on.
Most composers would probably think of muzak as opposite to everything they stand for. What drew you to this type of music which explicitly tries to be unchallenging, easy, etc.?
At one level I just love the soft quality of the music. At another level, I was concerned with the way this softness gets utilised in the service of capitalism (in banking adverts, as elevator music and hold music, even in Brian Eno’s Music for Airports), and wanted to explore and critique that complicity through the presentation of the music.
I’m curious to know how you understand the role of the callcenter workers within the piece. Do you regard them as collaborators?
Not collaborators, exactly. I think it’s significant that they come across both as sometimes humorous and sarcastic people, but also as agents mechanically reciting scripts. The call centres that I called were the UK Home Office and Department for Work and Pensions, departments which had enacted cruel and inhumane policies on behalf of the Conservative government in the years leading up to Disruptive Muzak. It was not my aim to blame these workers in an uncomplicated way – they are not the decision-makers – but it is not right to completely vindicate them either, as they did enact the orders given. In the situation, and the piece, they are trapped, as people who are capable of humour and sarcasm, and might be capable of greater kindness, but have ended up working in jobs where their working day has been structured to push them towards cruel and dehumanising acts. There’s something in that position of entrapment that resonates with many different situations and lives in contemporary capitalism, I think. In another related piece, I ask the question: ‘are we all becoming Customer Service Agents?’.