Why Can’t We Just Relax?

After a year riddled with cramped international flights and way too much computer use, I was greatly looking forward to enjoying a therapeutic massage and working some of that tension out. After I arrived at my appointment and we had exchanged the usual pleasantries, my massage therapist seemed amused and interested that I composed music.

“If you have anything relaxing, you should really bring it in next time,” she said. “Maybe it wouldn’t be relaxing for you but I could use it with my other patients instead of this.”

She gestured to a small CD player that was discreetly blanketing the room in unremarkable, new-agey droning. It sounded like something that Ralph Vaughn Williams or John Ireland shat out on one of their worst days—almost offensively inoffensive.

Oh no, I thought, trying to concentrate on relaxing my trigger-finger-prone “Finale hand”. Don’t do it, even though you do have a couple things that might actually be appropriate for being massaged to. Even so, those pieces aren’t *just* background music, and you’re not going to like them being used as such.

But after thinking about it some more (and with no small amount of coaxing) I decided, why not? What’s wrong with something that was created as “concert music” finding a new life as one of the most necessary types of Gebrauchsmusik? At first I had felt there was something vaguely degrading about having a couple of “the kinds of pieces that could be played during a massage,” but then I wondered, what’s the big deal with music that helps some kinds of people relax for their physical therapy? It’s a needed function, and I bet my two candidate pieces weren’t nearly as bad as the canned Windham Hill knock-offs currently in rotation.

Composers often have very specific notions about how and where their music should be experienced, but sometimes it is also important to remember that one of the best ways to help people listen to our works the way we’d like them to is by first allowing them to do so in ways we wouldn’t. Even in these two, relatively tame pieces I mention there is definitely “more going on” than just a pretty wash of affirmative sound, but maybe there’s nothing so wrong with letting people experience only that, at first. Who knows, maybe if anyone is interested enough to ask about this strange new massage-music it might even translate into a new face or two next time the works are performed locally.

3 thoughts on “Why Can’t We Just Relax?

  1. Chris Becker

    “It sounded like something that Ralph Vaughn Williams or John Ireland shat out on one of their worst days—almost offensively inoffensive.”

    Hoo-kay.

    A fellow composer and now music therapist loaned me this great book called Elevator Music which is a history of what you might call “mood altering” music. The author – Joseph Lanza – does a wonderful job challenging our perceptions and prejudices towards so called “new age” “elevator” “easy listening” etc music.

    A couple points…Erik Satie conceptualized and composed “Furniture Music” which he insisted be a functional aural backdrop to other sorts of activity. And much of the classical canon we celebrate consists of music composed for activities other than sitting in a chair and listening.

    I’m wrapping up a score for an evening length piece for dance. Movement then takes the foreground and the music – while crucial – is there to support the dance and theater onstage.

    So am I less of a composer for writing with this in mind – where I put the dance “first” and the music “second”?

    Do the big boys take care of what we listen to in the auditoriums and the flakes (like Satie) take care of the shopping malls, cars, airports, and massage therapists?

    Isn’t so-called “mood music” (in all of its variety) simply just another kind of music?

    Any Ray Coniff fans out there? You feel me? :)

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  2. Frank J. Oteri

    I second Chris here. Joseph Lanza’s Elevator Music was a life changing book for me. That along with Cage’s worldview and an essay I read in graduate school called “On Being Tasteless” have been critical guideposts for me in the formation of my own personal aesthetics. In fact, in case anyone here has forgotten, Lanza wrote an article for NewMusicBox nine years ago. Time flies….

    Reply
  3. danvisconti

    Thanks for the tip on the Lanza book, which I’m looking forward to getting a hold of.

    Chris, it wasn’t my intention to rip on the legitimacy of ambient/new age music or music written for spaces outside the concert hall (and to clarify, I probably own enough of their releases to qualify as one of those “Windham Hill people” myself, which is why I don’t have much stomach for a lot of the diluted, mass-produced muzak that attempts to stand in for the genuinely pioneering stuff that label has a proud history of having released).

    So my reaction relates more to the specific case of music originally conceived for the concert hall being ported to an entirely different listening space, one that bring with it wholly different musical priorities. This is what I was trying to get my head around–how could something initially intended to hold attention be successful in an environment where being unobtrusive became a major virtue instead of being undesirable?

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