Random Acts of Elevator Music – original concept

Below is the original Random Acts of Elevator Music concept proposal that we wrote in 2003 and submitted to Next Wave Festival for possible inclusion in their 2004 festival.

We were invited in for a meeting with Next Wave in 2003 following which they declined our proposal. The festival’s theme that year was “Unpopular Art” and we wondered what could be more unpopular than random people performing in lifts when you were just trying to have a quiet day in the office? Possibly they were sceptical that it was logistically feasible to go out and do the types of performances in buildings we were proposing.

After a few more attempts at securing funding we decided in 2006 to enter the project into the Melbourne Fringe and do the performances in office buildings at our own expense. Surprisingly this was quite successful and attracted a bit of media interest.

In 2009 the Australia Council for the Arts announced a “Sound Clash” category, exploring new ways of presenting sonic arts. By this time The Chaser and John Safran has popularised the idea of guerilla arts. We applied to the Australia Council for backing and they provided it. Away we went and did our CBD office building performances again in both Sydney and Melbourne.

So, if you’re interested in what we originally proposed for Random Acts of Elevator Music, read on below…

City Frequencies presents Random Acts of Elevator Music

The musical description “Elevator music” has been used as another term for “muzak”, generally meaning bland and inoffensive background music played in public spaces.  A subtle distinction is often made between muzak and ambient music, where ambient music, while sitting within the environmental listening background, still repays repeated listening for its subtlety and depth, while muzak follows the most simple and inoffensive of compositional formulae.  Elevator music is generally heard today in shopping centres, presumably designed to relax the consumers and subtly encourage them to spend more time and therefore more money on the premises. 

In Random Acts of Elevator Music, City Frequencies intend to make a series of performances which use this format to explore questions about the environment of the modern city and, in particular, the environment of the office worker.

While “Sound Design” is becoming accepted in academia and art music discourse as an area of study distinct from both music composition and interior design, this concept has generally not as yet filtered through into mainstream architectural practice.  Workplace policies in medium to large sized work environments generally prohibit the playing of music in the office despite large sums of money being spent on architecture, interior design, decoration and horticultural maintenance of the indoor plant collection.  Little thought is paid to the sonic environment of the worker.  Random Acts of Elevator Music will confront Melbourne’s office blocks with our attempt at repairing the audio dimension to these sonically sterile environments.

The process of making these performances will challenge the expectations of its audiences.  These performances will occur in a way that is both uninvited, unexpected and potentially unwanted.  By doing so we will force people out of their normal frames of reference for the duration of the performance.  Their thought patterns will dramatically shift from their routine where the only considerations may be the coming office meeting or how best to avoid looking at the person standing next to them in the elevator.  Their train of thought will be irrevocably circumvented and this will flow through into their expectations of the coming workday and into how they perceive their workplaces.

The elevator is a capsule insulated from the rest of the building.  It is the means by which a worker is conveyed from one environment to another.  It is the link between their work life and their outside life.  For many workers, an elevator can seem the last refuge of clear thought before a difficult day in the office.  This experience of a separate environment will be amplified by City Frequencies, and will provide a talking point at the least, and possibly a rehumanising experience.

The experience of being an audience member during one of these performances may be unwanted and unappreciated.  The unexpected appearance of two people, dressed in business atire, in the elevator performing ambient music through a portable miniature sound system while a worker is running late for work may be seen as an unwarranted intrusion.  But it is the contention of City Frequencies that, despite an element of confusion and apprehension, the reaction of people to an unexpected and extraordinary artistic experience will be appreciative.

This project will also examine the conjunction of business values and artistic values.  While there have been instances in the last century of artists and businesses attempting to show how environments which respect artistic values can increase productivity and job satisfaction, art still has a tendency to resist commodification and assimilation into the capitalist enterprise.  While artists still attempt to earn a living from art and while many facets of artistic endeavour come to the attention of big business, the motivations of artists seem to continue irrespective of these concerns.  City Frequencies will put in practice an artistic enterprise which is not sanctioned by the managers of the environments in which it is conducted.  Furthermore, this act of artistic activity is likely to be perceived as a threat to business activity merely by its location in a time and place designated as being specifically for “work”.  That the act of musical production is a form of work and that artists are workers themselves is likely to be ignored by these managers but appreciated instinctively by the audiences who experience these performances. 

In Random Acts of Elevator Music we shall provide an antidote to the fast and frenetic digital lifestyle of which these workplaces are both cause and effect.  Human disconnectedness in the office environment provides perfect expression in the elevator, shown in the phenomena whereby people look up, down, at the buttons, anywhere but at their fellow office workers with whom they have so much in common.  This can be seen as an expression of modern human interaction where disconnected hyper-communication methods such as the internet and SMS function as a replacement for real human-to-human presence.  Random Acts of Elevator Music will provide a pretext to unite people in their common experience of an out-of-the-ordinary occurrence contrasting with their expectations of a banal and routine day.

Random Acts of Elevator Music will also explore a phenomena of the last two years, that of security paranoia.  Since September the 11th, 2001, metropolitan office buildings have implemented new security procedures which, even if not achieving anything in increased real safety for workers, demonstrate that the office building managers are ‘doing something’.  By infiltrating these office environments City Frequencies will both demonstrate the ineffectualness of this increased security consciousness and also the paranoid and delusional foundations upon which it is based.  Will office workplaces have a “procedure” which covers these incidents of musical performance?  What will be the criteria for such a response?  Will Random Acts of Elevator Music be seen as threatening to these workplaces?  How will the response of management and security differ from that of workers?  Is it proportionate to the activity itself?  Random Acts of Elevator Music will incorporate means by which feedback can be gauged of office workers’ reactions and an ongoing dialogue with these workers will be encouraged.

Random Acts of Elevator Music will through these performances bring to the fore the disconnection between workplace practices and human values.  The juxtaposition of the routine and extraordinary will be highlighted.  The modern metropolitan office environment will be provoked and questioned.


During two weeks of the Next Wave Festival in 2004, City Frequencies will each evening post onto their website (linked to the Next Wave website) details of where the following days Randoms Acts of Elevator Music will occur.  These performances will take place on weekdays in a range of Melbourne’s most well-known office blocks.  Venues to be utilised will include 101 Collins Street, the IBM building at Southgate, the Melbourne Central tower, the ANZ building, Nauru House, the BHP building, the Rialto, Crown Towers, etc. 

City Frequencies will approach these buildings, dressed in business suits, with a portable music performance sound system.  This sound system will consist of a laptop computer, two portable Casio synthesizers, desktop speakers and effects.  These components, other than the laptop, will be stored, ready-to-go, in specially modified briefcases.  All components will be battery-powered. 

Once in the building, City Frequencies will enter an elevator and set up their sound system.  This will be accomplished in around thirty seconds, due to the components being assembled and functional within the briefcases prior to entering the building.

As soon as City Frequencies are set up within the elevator they will begin live performances of ambient electronic compositions, the music having been written and rehearsed in a period prior to the festival.  People getting into the elevator on various floors will thus experience the performance of live Random Acts of Elevator Music.  The duration of the performance will last until we are scheduled to appear at another building or until the building’s security or management ask us to leave.

While performing in the elevator, we will carry some material to be given to interested elevator users wanting to know more about what we are doing.  This will communicate the rationale behind our project and give workers a means to provide feedback on the project, possibly by later logging on to our website once they are at work and behind their desks.  Furthermore, we will, in collaboration with the festival management, design a laminated and certified Next Wave Festival pass to show to building security should they approach us.  This will function as a form of accreditation and encourage security personnel to evade any responsibilities they may feel towards evicting us from the building.

Each evening we will post a report to our website on the day’s performances, with details on the reactions to our presence in various buildings from different people.

Public Outcomes:

The actual live performances of ambient electronic music within Melbourne’s office elevators are the foremost public outcome.  A performance such as this will be in the tradition of ambient music exemplified by Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, where he composed music with the idea specifically in mind that it would be played in airport departure lounges.  Random Acts of Elevator Music will be specifically composed for the elevator environment and with the short duration of an elevator journey borne in mind.  People who have not been exposed to such forms of music will gain an appreciation of the possibilities of sound design in the workplace.

Office workers in the elevators who express appreciation or interest in our performance will be given printed material explaining the aims and ideals of the project.  This information will include our website address where they can log on and express their thoughts at their own leisure.  They will also be provided with information about the businesses who have provided in-kind support to City Frequencies in the form of technical support, services and costume hire.

Part of the public outcome of this project is to explore the reactions that such an event initiates.  This will be noted in the reactions of the audience members.  Are they hostile, embarrassed, bemused, interested or enthralled?  Will they choose to provide further feedback via our website?  We will be interested in any information about how it affected their attitude towards their working environments, their subsequent day at work or their relationships with fellow co-workers.

We will also be noting the reaction of the office management and security.  Will they see our presence as inappropriate in the workplace?  How will they seek to justify their reaction?  Will it be proportionate?  It will also be interesting to see how the management mindset reacts to the Next Wave accreditation we will show and whether this satisfies any requirement to legitimise our presence.  We will also be interested to see whether any office workers in the elevators come to our defence should security become hostile.  A report on the reaction of management, workers and security in each building will be written each evening and posted on our website.

Marketing and Audience:

Random Acts of Elevator Music will be a project of general interest to a range of people working in the inner city.  Office workers in the CBD are not usually considered as an audience for art events. Office buildings have an ambiguous status between public or private space.  While public art is generally found in areas such as arcades, laneways and squares, the art found in office buildings tends to be commissioned by management and is unproblematic in its concerns.  Yet an art event in this environment such as we are proposing, while unexpected, will still be of interest to the workers who frequent these buildings everyday.  This will foster a greater interest in the possibilities of art and its potential in their workplace environment.  We shall be exploring this reaction further in the feedback that we will receive via the internet from the office workers.  This is part of our belief, enunciated in our original City Frequencies project, of involving people who would not deliberately come into contact with art projects of this nature.

It is possible, perhaps probable, that the performances we are proposing will not be welcomed by the security or management in these office buildings.  The mindset we forsee is the belief that the unexpected leads to a disruption in the workplace and a resultant loss of productivity.  The unexpected also proves difficult to manage.  But we are hoping that with the support of a proportion of office workers appreciating the quality of the music, it will be somewhat difficult for management to halt our performances.

The audience for these performances also includes the Melbourne audience for experimental and electronic music, as well as art events.  These audiences will be made aware of this project through the Next Wave Festival publicity and the promotion we will be doing for the event.  These audiences will be able find out where Random Acts of Elevator Music will occur by logging on to the internet in advance.  They will also be able to find out about the reaction to various performances.  We also intend to use publicity in the media to gather increasing support for our performances as the festival progresses.

We believe that this project will also be of interest to people involved in certain areas of academia and political activism.  This project has an element of ‘culture jamming’ and explores the nature, practice and effect of Western society’s current security paranoia.

Like our original City Frequencies project, Random Acts of Elevator Music will examine the unique cultural life within which we work, not just as a product of this culture but as an artwork that inherently utilises its distinctive and diverse cultural and social activity as the very fabric from which it is formulated.

Check out the extensive information about this project on the official Random Acts of Elevator Music website and the links below.

Random Acts of Elevator Music
Random Acts of Elevator Music discography
Random Acts of Elevator Music performances
Random Acts of Elevator Music media
Random Acts of Elevator Music videos

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