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Time and Motion Study

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Photos: Sue Rees

Read about the Mass MoCA residency »

Time and Motion Study is a work-in-progress; versions were premiered at Mass MoCA this Fall 2009, and at Bennington College in Spring 2009. The work takes as inspiration technological culture of the 1920s and 1930s, when Muzak was first pumped over telephone lines to bolster worker productivity. Time and Motion Study sonically traces the history of background music, deconstructing how it has seeped into modern U.S. culture and influenced daily work rituals.

Frank Gilbreth coined the term “time and motion study” for his 1910s ergonomics experiments, in which workers’ movements were measured and reordered to increase efficiency. Factory and office workers were placed in “betterment rooms”, lined with black-and-white grids to chart the flow of repetitive tasks. Their gestures were analyzed into atomic phrases, such as “search”, “select”, “grasp”, and “release”. Gilbreth improved the productivity of his own trade of bricklaying by 200%.

Muzak—also part of this industrial efficiency movement–emerged in the 1930s, and by the early 1950s was piped into the workplace over phone lines. Muzak was the biggest consumer of phone lines in the world. The Muzak corporation invented the Stimulus Progression® curve, which charted the surges and ebbs of energy each day, and counteracted them with crescendos of musical activity over 15-minute segments.

Background music is popularly understood as a wordless accompaniment, a fragmented medley of barely recognizable tunes. If Muzak has words, it’s “ooh”, “ah”, and “doo”, and it works best subliminally: if you notice Muzak, it’s not doing its job. Muzak probably has its roots in Wagner: in the Ring cycle, tiny fragmented melodies or “leitmotifs” make up the fabric of this almost day-long piece, There are no memorable songs, but instead a seamless fabric of aural signals, micro-melodies meaning “sword”, “ring”, or “the Rhein”. The orchestra is hidden under the stage at Wagner’s Bayreuth Theater, and the Ring cycle itself is based on circular, daylike structure: under a building contract gone awry, Valhalla is built, then knocked down at twilight.

Time and Motion Study is stitched together from barely recognizable samples of the quotidian—standards, top 40, and everyday breathing, humming, and movement, alongside scat, songs-without-words, exercise records and Wagner, all sources that suggest a background orchestra that moves us like Muzak.

Part I — Excerpt

Mass MoCA 2009 residency

Performers: Genevieve Belleveau, Abigail Nessen Bengson, Michael Chinworth, Corey Dargel, Emily Eagen, Laryssa Husiak, Jeremy Lydic, Ricardo Vazquez
Composer/codirector: Nick Brooke
Codirector: Jenny Rohn
Set design: Sue Rees
Lighting design: Michael Giannitti
Fight choreographer: Chris Edwards
Production manager/stage manager: Madeline Best
Live mixing/sound design: Mike Rugnetta
Music director: Mary Montgomery Koppel
Costume designer: Kirian Langseth-Schmidt
Assistant costume designer: Kaitee Tredway