(Unfathomless 2011)

In George Romero’s film Dawn of the Dead, the zombies shambling around America in search of fresh flesh to gorge upon have lost almost all of their humanity. Everything but the last few remnants of their previous lives has been obliterated. Yet they are drawn to the mall, as if the final vestige of modern Homo sapiens is to shop.

Romero’s Living Dead ride escalators, push trolleys laden with goods and examine clothes in shops because it is what they did when they were people. They prefer this sealed off, safe, air conditioned temple of consumerism to the world outside.

Why would anyone want the unpredictability of weather when they could have all year round constant temperature and controlled humidity? Why suffer birdsong and leaves rustling in the wind when the air could be filled with beautiful all consuming muzak?

Simon Whetham’s Mall Muzak draws focus away from the shoppers and concentrates on the coccoon they inhabit. A picture inside the cover of this Unfathomless CD shows Simon standing by an escalator with a large microphone. One wonders what the shoppers’ reaction to this was. Did they ask why anyone would want to record a shopping centre? Did they speak to him and ask him what he was doing there? Did they even notice at all?

Recorded largely in storage areas, empty corridors and closed units, an air of dereliction informs the music. Mall Muzak could be seen as a requiem for a lost time when the shuttered shops were brightly lit and thronged with customers. Now in quieter times commercially speaking, the sounds of the mall’s life support systems – heating, ventilation, transport – threaten to drown out the smattering of customers still loyally making the pilgrimage to Broadmead.

In the world of retail everything is in constant flux. When Meadowhall opened as an all weather, undercover, bright, anodyne alternative to proper shopping, the city centre of Sheffield went into decline. Shops were boarded up and abandoned. Suddenly a place I remember as being a thriving, interesting experience as a child was transformed into a semi-desolate ghost town.

Rather than be governed by the weather, rather than get a bit wet in the rain or buffeted by the breeze, people elected to spend their time, and money, indoors. You could buy beautiful big posters of woodland scenes from the Athena shop too if you really did crave nature.

Whetham’s single long track bathes us in the hum of the structure’s processes. Occasionally a tiny window opens and we hear coins drop or some activity in a storage area a long way away down an empty corridor. Always the drone of the artificial closes around us once again, like the feeling of being in the house for too long and not getting out into the fresh air.

I read a review that said if the muzak in shopping malls was really like this it would be worth visiting more often. Well it is really like this! It’s a matter of listening into the corners and the hidden places. Listening beyond the throng and into the heart of the building. Listen.

-Chris Whitehead

Simon Whetham website
Unfathomless website

Chris Whitehead

Sound artist.