Furnishing Silences


5 April 2018

Last year, Disegno marked the centenary of composer Erik Satie's (1866-1925) concept of "Furniture Music" by collaborating with the sound designer Yuri Suzuki on a special project. Published in Disegno #16, the project saw Suzuki propose four concepts for ambient sound-making objects for the contemporary home. Disegno is pleased to re-publish the project online on the occasion of New Music New Functionalities, an events series organised in collaboration with Stanley Picker Gallery and the Design Museum. The programme explores the intersection between contemporary design and sound, and kicks off tomorrow.

“Furniture music is something that should be created – that is, music which would be part of the ambience, which would take account of it. I imagine it being melodic in nature: it would soften the noise of knives and forks without dominating them, without imposing itself. It would furnish those silences which sometimes hang heavy between diners. It would save them from everyday banalities. At the same time, it would neutralise those street sounds which impinge on us indiscreetly.”

This is what the French composer Erik Satie is said to have declared to the painter Fernand Léger in a Parisian café sometime in the mid-1910s. The anecdote, as told by Léger in a special Satie-themed issue of La Revue Musicale from 1952, describes what is considered a foundational moment for the conceptualisation of background music, Muzak, or musique d’ameublement (“furniture music”), as Satie called it. Furniture music was designed to be heard, but not actively listened to. “Furnishing music completes one’s property,” Satie wrote a few years later, continuing with typical Dada panache: “It's new; it does not upset customs; it is not tiring […] it is not boring.”

It is a century since Satie wrote his first Furniture Music. The 1917 set, which seems to have never been performed or published in Satie’s lifetime, consisted of two somewhat eccentrically titled pieces: ‘Tapestry in forged iron; for the arrival of the guests (grand reception), to be played in a vestibule; movement: very rich’ and ‘Phonic tiling; can be played during a lunch or civil marriage; movement: ordinary’. The scores are short: both pieces are composed of a single motif for flute, clarinet, and strings that may be repeated ad infinitum. The effect of listening actively to Satie’s furniture music can be somewhat maddening. Approach it in a state of distraction, however, and it will likely fulfil its function as a relatively soothing sonic padding.

“Reception in a state of distraction,” wrote Walter Benjamin in his much-cited 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, “is increasing noticeably in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in apperception.” In its move away from the rapt concentration of the concert hall, Satie’s furniture music served as a near contemporary validation of Benjamin’s analysis of perception of various art forms in modernity. That music or sound design (to use an anachronistic term) could form part of the fabric of everyday life, and that designing such sounds could be a worthwhile endeavour for composers, was an original idea – at least in the Western tradition. This “de-sacralisation" of so-called high art was, Benjamin argued, in large part due to the dawn of mechanical reproducibility on a mass scale in the early 20th century.

Furniture music was, in many ways, ahead of its time. Although performances of later sets (of which there were two, written in 1920 and 1923 respectively) took place in Satie’s lifetime, it was in the postwar period that composers and musicologists began to take a keen interest in Satie’s ideas about repetition and ambience. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Western artists and composers began to scramble to negate the high art traditions of pre- and interwar Europe. The American composer John Cage did much to popularise Satie’s music in the postwar years through performances, essays, and homages, and considered furniture music, in particular, to be Satie’s “most far-reaching discovery”. The postwar decades were the era of Muzak’s peak popularity too – commercially produced background music piped into retail and work spaces, programmed to subtly manipulate (or “stimulate”, as its implementors put it) consumers’ and workers’ behaviour. In the concert hall as in the shopping centre, the effects of ambient music were being scrutinised, mobilised, and experimented with.

To mark the centenary of Satie’s concept last year, Disegno approached the London-based sound designer Yuri Suzuki to re-imagine furniture music for a contemporary domestic setting. Suzuki, who was a 2017 Stanley Picker Fellow at Kingston University, London, is a designer of intuitive digital music making objects: toy cars that play music as they drive around colourful scribbled scores; a circuit board that turns any object into a synthesiser; and an app that converts brooms into guitars, and pots and pans into drums. Since graduating from the Royal College of Art in 2008, Suzuki has built his practice on the suggestion that sound might be treated as a subject for industrial design, as well as an appreciation of sound as a functional element within a space. It was a deep-rooted interest in atmospheric sound and its effects, however, that led Suzuki to Satie’s furniture music.

“I’m interested in atmosphere, and how we can improve our daily lives through sound,” explains Suzuki, who cites the British composer Brian Eno's ambient music as an influence. “The overall effect should be quite modest,” he continues, stressing the fine distinction between stimulation and manipulation. “Repetitive sounds are good at calming humans down, for example, but repetitions shouldn’t be too mechanical, because the human brain immediately recognises identical patterns and they make us uncomfortable. There needs to be an element of randomness to the repetition.”

The following proposals present four concepts for furniture music, titled in Satie-esque fashion. Each object is illustrated by Philippe Dupuy and accompanied by a score, developed by Suzuki as advised by the composer Matthew Rogers, which evokes the soundscape produced. Some objects, such as the mechanical rain stick and white noise pacifier, already exist or are being being developed by Suzuki. Others, such as the acoustic side table and singing washing machine, are currently being developed, form a part of Suzuki’s current exhibition at the Stanley Picker Gallery. What is critical to each object is that it responds to Satie’s idea of furniture music on both a literal and metaphorical level.

Acoustic Side Table, To be performed at an awkward family gathering; movement: animated. IMAGE Philippe Dupuy.

Yuri Suzuki This is a table made from an acoustic chamber. The living room is all about encouraging interactions and conversations between family and friends. In this country, we don’t have such a problem with this kind of communication, but in Japan, conversations can be difficult. Sound can have a profound psychological effect on people. Conversations are much more comfortable if you’re in a slightly noisier environment like a café or a public space. So with this object, the sound made by any item placed on the table – a cup, a plate, a phone – will be amplified. With ambient noise coming out of the table, the quality of the conversation might be improved.

Mechanical Rain Stick, For the uneasy sleeper; movement: calm. IMAGE Philippe Dupuy.

Yuri Suzuki The sound of waves is really soothing. So for the bedroom, I’ve developed a machine that recreates the sound of waves on beaches from around the world in real time. It consists of a motorised tube that is filled with little pebbles. When rotated, it recreates the sound of a wave, and it’s connected to wave pattern data from around the world, so you can listen to the waves in, say, Brighton or San Francisco in realtime. It’s like a musical instrument played by the sea.

Singing Washing Machine, To be played while performing domestic chores; movement: dynamic. IMAGE Philippe Dupuy.

Yuri Suzuki This is a project that has come out of conversations with the composer Matthew Herbert. He’s been thinking about the washing machine cycle taking up to two hours, and some of the sounds it makes during that time are quite brutal. We were really thinking about how you could put order into the process by composing a two-hour score to complement the sounds of the machine.

White Noise Pacifier, For a child missing the womb; movement: soothing. IMAGE Philippe Dupuy.

Yuri Suzuki Certain kinds of white noise can have a beneficial effect on people, although it can’t be too repetitive or industrial, and it needs random elements to it. I’ve already developed a product called the white noise machine, but here I’m developing it slightly further by incorporating the sound of the wind rustling leaves on a tree. I imagine this being hooked up to a baby’s cot. When a baby cries and parent’s say ‘shhhhh’, the shhhhhh-sound is actually white noise that mimics the sound in the womb.