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Palliative Measures

Songs in the Key of Death

America’s funeral parlors rely on one man to provide the theme music for your grandmother’s memorial service, the pop radio for your cousin’s wake. Welcome to “semi-spiritual” ambient music and the stuff of contemporary mourning.

Jacob Feige, Saiga Recorder, 2011. Courtesy the artist.

Do not let the “new age” label fool you—David Young’s music is damn catchy. With simple melodies, played on the recorder and repeated with slight variations, the songs run through my head hours after listening, and I’m not exactly a new-age fan. Young’s catalog covers a who’s who of adult contemporary—from Miguel Bosé’s “Lay Down on Me” to “Con te partirò”—but even the melodies in his original songs exude a similar familiarity. Young may not work for Muzak, but his music sure sounds like he’s studied their scores.

From a wardrobe of puffy shirts to the gimmick of playing two recorders at once, David Young seems about as cheesy as new-age music gets—think Tim Robbins’s character in High Fidelity, but with less home-wrecking libido and more harpsichord. But, non-threatening as the image may be, this self-described “pied piper of romantic music for the 21st century” has independently released more than 16 albums, including Celestial Winds, Renaissance, and Songs of Hope, and claims to have sold more than one million copies (500,000 in 2002 alone!).

I first learned about David Young from an ad in the quarterly trade magazine of the Dodge Company, the world’s largest supplier of mortuary chemicals. The Spring 2008 issue of Dodge Magazine included articles on “airbrushing cosmetics for funeral professionals” and how funeral directors should respond in the case of a mass murder in a small-town shopping mall (be “like French waiters…[who can] do the job and not be noticed”). In addition to embalming chemicals, Dodge also has a hand in the sale and distribution of miscellaneous funerary goods—including memorial collages of softly lit photos that “make women squeal with delight when they see the portraits for the first time.”

That there is a “funeral industry” in the first place can seem morbid and indecent. Anyone who remembers Six Feet Under may feel they know the ins and outs, but the reality is certainly more disturbing. Flipping through a trade magazine advertising “vibrant” urns and pink-hued arterial conditioners does nothing to contradict this impression, nor does Young’s ad. In the full-page color layout, Young’s musical oeuvre is described as “perfect background music for your funeral home.” Wearing dangerously tight pants and a puffy shirt coyly unbuttoned to reveal a shadow of chest hair, David Young hawks a new age of new-age music for funerals. “In emotional times such as these,” the ad claims, “it’s important to set the right tone.” 

In 2004, Craig Caldwell of the Dodge Company met Young at a funeral directors’ trade show in Chicago. Impressed, Caldwell made a distribution arrangement with the musician and has since been selling Young’s recordings to his clients—funeral directors who rely on Dodge for everything from embalming fluid to a disinfectant called Lemocide. On the phone from his office, Caldwell explained that the music’s emotional restraint, being “lighter, airier, more enticing to sharing feelings and thoughts, than dirges,” made it seem like a good match for funeral homes. This preference for lightness mirrors other changes in modern funerals, a business that, though still traditional by many accounts, is becoming increasingly secular and informal. “People rarely wear black to funerals anymore,” Caldwell told me when I interviewed him in 2008. “Except for the older generation. But children today, they don’t even wear a coat and a tie anymore.”

Young is the theme song to your grandmother’s memorial, the pop radio of your cousin’s wake. That funeral homes now have a soundtrack, one that provides us with a subtle, uncomplicated sense of recognition—as minimalist guru Brian Eno would call it, an ambience—shouldn’t be a surprise. Rather than a nuisance or intrusion, this easy listening could be a way of mitigating disruptive grief. 

 

So how does music “relaxing” enough for grief sound? Songs on Young’s CDs vary between “downtempo,” “upbeat,” and “spiritual.” They bring to mind waiting for customer service. There are lots of wind chimes and bird sounds. There are no large leaps in volume or changes in meter, no unpredictable or complex chord progressions. This is music as single-issue sloganeering, a made-for-TV movie of sound. Young’s oeuvre is one of distillation, melding classical, opera, pop, and folk. It always sounds familiar, even when you hear it for the first time.

Over the phone, Young had the voice of a technician, not the Renaissance Faire minstrel his photos conjure. He revealed that the very prominent reverb in his recordings is intentional, and rather lofty. “You can imagine that you’re playing in a church that has a high, vaulted ceiling and a beautiful acoustical sound.” He was quick to point out the deep, emotional impact his music has had on others, carefully distancing himself from loathsome Muzak. Young’s work, which is “not limited to new age,” is “relaxing, instrumental music that should make you feel a little more spiritual than you felt before—uplift your consciousness, soul, or being.”

At a funeral, you’re not only mourning, you’re keeping an eye on Aunt Sally and checking your iPhone in the restroom. In times like these, we may look at music as something to enhance our activities—not to change our behavior in any way.

And the fact that people use his recordings as background music and may not pay close attention when listening doesn’t negate the music’s spiritual effect. According to Young, our busy, stressful, day-to-day lives leave no time for listening to music in the foreground. Blame it on multitasking. “It’s the way things are now,” he said. “People spend so much time in front of a computer, you can’t really listen to someone singing in your ear and hear the words while you’re reading something on a screen. Because of that, there has been a huge place for instrumental music in people’s lives.” So sharing someone’s attention while they’re checking email or doing the dishes is a pretty big accomplishment to Young. “I’m lucky to hear people say, ‘This is the best background music I have,’” he said.

In her essay “Ubiquitous Listening,” musicologist Anahid Kassabian cites an ominous promise from Muzak promotional literature: “Muzak fills the deadly silence.” The spooky imagery is no accident. Kassabian, explaining how and why we’ve come to live in a culture where our public space is completely saturated with produced and programmed sound, goes on to quote Muzak programming manager Steve Ward’s claim that the pervasive recordings “fill the air with sort of a warm familiarity.” Without this familiar din, “if you were pushing a cart through a grocery store and all you hear is wheels creaking and crying babies— it would be like a mausoleum.” I.e., sans Muzak, our lives resemble death. And this could sound like empty rhetorical manipulation, but what about David Young’s popularity in funeral homes?

There is no doubt Young believes deeply in his music and takes his work seriously. In conversation, he offered no real modesty. He often described responses and experiences people have to his music as “amazing.” To him, he’s making “hopeful songs with a positive message so beautiful that it lifts people up to find some happiness with whatever situation they’re in.” This music is powerful stuff, Young claims, in its ability to soothe and comfort; the longer you listen, the better you feel. Of course, it’s hard to imagine someone being touched spiritually by music that doesn’t demand full attention. It’s not how I picture the spiritual plane working for most of us. Depending on which recording you choose, David Young’s music can be as appropriate for the department-store bathroom as it is for the doctor’s office.

While minimalists like Steve Reich and Brian Eno may seek to challenge ideas about what kinds of sound are classifiable as music, Young takes what we understand to be music’s goal—melody and harmony serving to elicit an emotional response—and lightens it to build songs not of catharsis, but of reassurance. This is a familiar sound that unconsciously envelops us, rather than solace through religious ritual. And considering how Young’s music ends up in places where the explicit purpose is not listening—or at least not listening too closely—maybe I’m the one with the simplistic ideas. Perhaps music gains value not only from what it sounds like, but how and where listeners take it in.

Most of my day is filled with ambient, anonymous noise. In this respect, David Young has me pegged: I’m often too busy to focus exclusively on a record even when I really like it. According to Robert Fink, musicologist and author of Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice, this is a somewhat valid characterization of listening trends overall. Fink claims certain music was on its way to becoming “wallpaper” well before the MP3 era. Mid-20th-century technological advances like the long-playing record and the “record changer” brought a revolution of convenience by playing numerous, longer records successively and created “an endless aural tapestry out of dozens of homogenous movements [in a symphony], over which the listener’s loosely focused attention could waver and dart.”

With record changers making constant sound not only possible, but also commonplace, Easy Listening stepped in to fill this new need for endless music. Fink cites the jacket copy from the Melachrino Strings’ 1958 Music for Relaxation (“one of the classics of the genre”): an album which soothes children “into a lulling sense of security and rest” and that “you’ll want to play over and over for the music as well as the therapy.” Fink, like Anahid Kassabian, the musicologist responsible for the “ubiquitous listening” theory, asserts that today’s atmosphere of constant, easily ignored, and allegedly therapeutic music—light rock streaming from your coworker’s cubicle, Frank Sinatra at the Italian restaurant—is made possible both by technological modernization, as well as what Kassabian refers to as the “non-linearity of contemporary life.” This is Young’s thoroughly modern ideal audience: listeners in need of relaxation, but not at the expense of their constant multitasking.

At funerals and memorials I’ve been to in recent years, I have experienced what Dr. Holton describes as the “rhythm of grief”: a communal power or quality where sadness pours from people when they’re surrounded by loved ones and secure in the safe space of the funeral.

At a funeral, you’re not only mourning, you’re keeping an eye on Aunt Sally and checking your iPhone in the restroom. In times like these, we may look at music as something to enhance our activities—not to change our behavior in any way.

Both Craig Caldwell of the Dodge Company and David Young agree that what people want to hear at funerals—especially those they are planning—are songs they grew up with that carry emotional history. “The people that are planning funerals now,” Caldwell told me, “grew up with the music that [David Young] tends to play. Even though the funeral is for their 80- or 90-year-old mother, they’re planning it for themselves. They want to play ‘Scarborough Fair’ at the funeral because it’s part of their lifestyle.”

But mourners don’t simply want “Scarborough Fair”—they want “Scarborough Fair” through a David Young filter, what the advertisement for Young’s music describes as “semi-spiritual.” The spirituality is “semi” in that it lends itself commercially to distribution agreements with corporations who manufacture embalming chemicals, but is still moving enough to preserve the emotional sanctity of our rituals for death. In a church funeral, hymns and music at prescribed moments bring on a wave of grief we desire and expect, and one that swells and then—crucially—subsides as the music ends. Still, as Caldwell noted, services in funeral homes, even religious ones, often incorporate more secular influences. David Young’s music, when it shows up at a funeral home, doesn’t ask much of a listener in terms of attention, reverence, or devotion. The spirituality comes easy, and so do the emotions—if they come at all.

Entering a funeral home for a visitation, I’m usually blinded from the bright sun to the dim light of the carpeted hall. Mourners gather in the entryway around tables of sandwich platters and carafes of burnt coffee. It’s impossible to imagine something tasting good in a funeral home. Then there are stages of engagement. People talk about work before drifting quietly to the dais. Even in the case of a tragic and surprising death, I’ve found it’s rare that anyone cries throughout—instead grief is experienced in bursts, both alone and within the safe embrace of other mourners. Photos of our lost friend, relative, parent, or child surround, but none are too big or too bright.

 

Grief, for all cultures and within every tradition, has a space. Jews sit shiva and create a literal space—covered mirrors and all—for their lament, Catholics stay up for a week with the loved one’s body, and a number of cultures follow a body or coffin to its final destination. The organized and official “goodbye” is almost as universal as death itself. According to Dr. Jan Holton, an assistant professor of pastoral care and counseling at Yale Divinity School, “Church services and ritual create this transitional space that allows for the expression of grief. In a funeral, there is structure. You come through the suddenness or the long process of the actual dying, and on the other side is learning to live life without that person.” The funeral parlor can help with this in its own way. It is not home, but it’s homey. And here, like in church, music facilitates a momentary familiarity. It helps, in the words of Young’s Dodge Magazine ad, to “set the right tone.”

This is music for funerals. Just as Brian Eno actualized the idea of music “for airports,” David Young’s work makes sense once installed. Both acknowledge the power their music has in the background. Young doesn’t reimagine the funeral home the way Music for Airports manages to make the airport seem like a quiet, beautiful film. But simply, often through nothing more than song choice, key, or tempo, Young incorporates and distills the themes of the modern funeral. Eno himself wrote that his music “must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” The intense, focused listening practice is only one way to experience sound. As the rhetoric in Muzak and easy-listening promotional materials asserts, this air freshener of sound livens up the room and in doing so, makes us feel better about our cold, lonely, quiet world.

At funerals and memorials I’ve been to in recent years, I have experienced what Dr. Holton describes as the “rhythm of grief”: a communal power or quality where sadness pours from people when they’re surrounded by loved ones and secure in the safe space of the funeral. I have crept across the aisle during a funeral mass to hold a friend and have likewise been held by others. At a recent funeral, singing songs in a group brought moments of relief and great sadness, and gave me a chance to remember a friend’s beauty and talent. But I’ve also benefited from distraction and detachment—smoking cigarettes outside, cooing at a baby.

We are more sensitive and more numbed in these moments. A natural disaster or presidential election may go completely unnoticed when mourning a loved one, while the slightest gesture—a smile from a familiar-looking face in a crowd—can bring paroxysms of grief. Cutting back on stimulation, retreating away from anything that swells, or pains, or carries contradiction can be an act of self-protection or therapy. To play Young’s music at a funeral, because of its ability to either enable an exaggerated emotional response or be ignored entirely, is to choose not to choose. The best bet, as funeral directors seem to realize, is to opt for the “non-thing,” the music that melts into the scenery, so as to avoid the nothing—the silence that by our 21st century has come to signify death.

biopic

TMN Editor Nicole Pasulka believes she could beat a lie detector. When she sits in a chair she almost never puts her feet on the floor. Even though she likes the internet a lot, she is convinced that people will always read magazines and she is secretly building one in her basement. More by Nicole Pasulka