Hold, Please — And Enjoy the Music

The American Music Center has commissioned six composers to write original compositions for its phone system. The idea is to make sitting on hold a more stimulating experience, and create new venues for electroacoustic composers. Robert Siegel talks with Joanne Cossa, the executive director of the American Music Center.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The American Music Center provides information and support for new American music. Among its founders more than 60 years ago was Aaron Copland. If you call up the center's Manhattan office and things are busy, you're in for a surprise.

(Soundbite of telephone call)

Unidentified Receptionist: American Music Center, can you hold, please?

(Soundbite of hold music)

SIEGEL: And if you called back, say, the next day you'd be in for a different surprise.

(Soundbite of telephone call)

Unidentified Receptionist: American Music Center, can you hold one moment?

(Soundbite of hold music)

SIEGEL: That's right, the American Music Center is exploiting a new performance space, if you can call it that. The center commissioned six composers to write music to be played on hold. Joanne Cossa is executive director of the American Music Center.

And tell us, what's the idea here?

Ms. JOANNE COSSA (Executive Director, American Music Center): Well, we want to use this terribly frustrating venue, sitting waiting on hold for something, to give people some very interesting music. And this is a unique way to take what most people think of as a nuisance and transform it into an opportunity to hear something that will be engaging. And it's in memory of Eric Siday, the man who wrote the Maxwell House percolator melody, (singing) dee-dee-dee-dee-deet-deet, dee-dee-dee-deet-deet. Very, very interesting guy who's not widely known.

SIEGEL: A classic of the genre...

Ms. COSSA: That's correct.

SIEGEL: ...whatever the genre is.

Ms. COSSA: Well, he started the genre and he wrote for many other corporations these sound logos which he called Identitones. And his estate wanted to honor his memory. They came to the American Music Center, said, `How shall we do it?' And we said, `Let's commission some American electroacoustic composers to write music for the telephone hold system.'

SIEGEL: Short pieces, presumably?

Ms. COSSA: Yeah, we asked them all to write something between one and two minutes.

SIEGEL: That shows a great deal of confidence in your receptionist that you're getting to phone calls that quickly, but...

Ms. COSSA: (Laughs) Well, the thing about these pieces is they can be listened to over and over again and you hear more than one. Actually they loop. So you hear one piece and then that's identified and the next piece is identified. If you happen to be on hold for five minutes you can hear three pieces or the better part of three pieces. The composers were charged with writing something that people could tune into at any point but it would be interesting.

SIEGEL: Let's listen to a little bit of this on-hold music at higher fidelity, not down the phone line. This is part of the first track we heard, Halim El-Dabh's minute, 50-second composition "Signals/Connections."

(Soundbite of "Signals/Connections")

Unidentified Singers: (Singing in foreign language)

SIEGEL: Now, say I'm calling the American Music Center about my appointment to come and fix the copying machine and I'm on hold. Does this work? This is what I'm hearing?

Ms. COSSA: This is what you're hearing.

SIEGEL: I see the point about no beginning and no end. He's kind of got the loop effect working in that composition.

Ms. COSSA: Yes, he does. And to me it sounds like a ritual. Halim El-Dabh was born in Egypt. He's lived in the United States for many years. He's actually the most renowned and seasoned composer in this group and the oldest. They range in age from their 20s to their 80s, as Halim is. And he makes all these sounds with his own voice and then it's manipulated by computer.

SIEGEL: Now next here's Larry Polansky's "To Foster and Encourage" from his piece "Anna," Study No. 4.

(Soundbite of "To Foster and Encourage")

Unidentified Woman: (In multiple looped layers) Hello, you have reached the American Music Center. Please hold.

SIEGEL: Now again, if I were the uninitiated caller, I might think something is profoundly wrong with your answering machine right now.

Ms. COSSA: Yes, with this one you might.

(Soundbite of "To Foster and Encourage")

Unidentified Woman: (In multiple layers) ...(Unintelligible). To foster and encourage the composition of contemporary American music and to promote its production, publication, distribution and performance...

Ms. COSSA: This comes form the founders of the American Music Center's original statement of why they wanted to help composers and promote new music in this country. It's funny; it's amusing. I think if you listen to it for a few minutes, people will catch on.

SIEGEL: What kind of reviews is the receptionist hearing after she gets back to the people who were on hold?

Ms. COSSA: Well, occasionally we'll hear somebody say, `Could you put me on hold again, please? I just want to hear the end of that piece.'

SIEGEL: Now when we are on hold, we are a captive audience and often an impatient audience. Were the composers eager to write for people who are, frankly, hoping to hear as little as possible of their work when they're on hold?

Ms. COSSA: Well, the ones we asked to write received this commission very enthusiastically. And, in fact, they really wanted to do it. One of our composers, Ira J. Mowitz, wrote a piece which is very, very different from all the others. It has a very bouncy, pop music feel, a very engaging melody and rhythm. It reminds me of music from the '60s, from movies and television shows. And yet in the middle of it every once in a while you hear one of his children say, `Hello, I'm coming.'

SIEGEL: Let's listen to Ira Mowitz.

(Soundbite of hold music)

Unidentified Child: Hello, hello.

SIEGEL: And...

Ms. COSSA: I bet you nine out of 10 people who got this on hold would be sitting there moving their head back and forth, moving their shoulders. I think everybody can respond to this.

(Soundbite of hold music)

Unidentified Child: Hang on. Hello.

SIEGEL: Well, are you going to limit it to six, or are there going to be more on-hold compositions?

Ms. COSSA: Oh, I hope not. What we would like to see is this project, the idea, be picked up by others so that it gives composers another market for their work. We'd like to see the idea take hold so that more people would hear interesting music when they're a captive audience having to wait for someone.

SIEGEL: Well, Joanne Cossa, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Ms. COSSA: Well, thank you. It was a pleasure, Robert.

SIEGEL: Joanne Cossa, who is the executive director of the American Music Center, which commissioned six composers to write music to be played on hold.

(Soundbite of hold music)

Unidentified Child: Coming. Hello. Be with you in a minute. Be with you in a minute. I'm coming. Hello. Be with you in a minute. Hold on. Hold on. I'm coming. Be with you in a minute. You've reached the American Music Center.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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