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A Philadelphia art installation is rethinking that insipid old Muzak.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the executives behind Muzak — the bland background noise piped into hotel lobbies, malls, and elevators — adopted a slogan touting their social engineering capabilities: "Muzak While You Work for Increased Efficiency." A carefully calibrated playlist with increasing tempo promised to make factory workers more productive, while slower, easy-listening tunes claimed to encourage shoppers to take their time.

"I found all that kind of sinister," jokes Yowei Shaw. A freelance public radio reporter and producer by training, Shaw has been grappling with questions of engaging listeners in public spaces as part of her residency with the Philadelphia-based Asian Arts Initiative's Social Practice Lab. Muzak's social engineering history, she says, gave her an idea: "What if we could make our own kind of elevator music, but do it with pro-social intentions, to promote community?"

And so her project, Really Good Elevator Music, was born. Shaw asked six local musicians from Philly's Chinatown North/Callowhill neighborhood to produce tracks that would help "foster community" in the area. The result is the 13 track album of "really good elevator music," which is playing in the elevators of the nearby, mixed-use Wolf Building for the month of March.

Each artist interpreted the prompt differently, though common threads include street sounds and interviews with local residents, as well as tempos, instruments, and musical keys that are far more upbeat than most background music. Several of the tracks from fellow artist-in-residence Steve Parker, titled "InterMuzzak," act as a direct parody of typically bad elevator music, punctuated with "surprise" recordings from local residents. (In one, a woman reminds, "Attention: Today, make sure to take a moment to watch the sunset.") Another track features interviews with passersby about that most mundane topic — the weather. The last track captures the chaos of a middle school graduation rehearsal, as rowdy 8th graders try to perfect their Miley Cyrus medley. 

The point of these more obtrusive background tracks, Shaw says, is to encourage conversation and connection in these places where people are so often alone, together. "There's a lot of potential for these spaces in our everyday lives," she says. "That's one of the goals of the project: to get people to see the potential for it to be a space for connecting with other people, for learning about a particular neighborhood, for experiencing art, for just experiencing a moment of genuine connection."

Shaw has used surveys and direct observation to test how this experimental installation is going, including riding the elevator as a passenger herself. Reactions, she says, have run the gamut. Though many have loved it, she says she was surprised by how incensed some have gotten. Once, she explains, "this guy was in the elevator with me, and he looked at me and was like, 'Man, this is just too loud.'" But, she adds with a laugh, "Even though he doesn't like the music, he was still uniting with other people in dislike for it."

Listen to the full album on the project's website — she even encourages you to stream sans headphones, creating your own mini-experiment.

Top Image: Toshe Ognjanov / Shutterstock.com

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