More muzak: ice-cream vans and garbage trucks

Ice cream van

Further to my post on Muzak, at a certain remove from traditional scholarship on the Great Composers or Daoist ritual, a couple of examples of how ethnomusicology “delights in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse”, in the immortal words of John Cleese.

Back in the heady days of the SOAS shawm band, my mate Simon (not to be confused with Philomena Cunk’s mate Paul, bane of many a hapless expert interviewee) took time out from his research on percussion in Korean shaman rituals to undertake a fieldwork project about the music of British ice-cream vans. Like Liu Kuang’s Wall inscription for the Director of the Imperial Music Office in the Tang dynasty, the loss of this work is to be lamented, but Simon recalls driving around in his parents’ Morris Minor with the window down in the peak of summer, listening out for ice-cream chimes:

After picking up the tell-tale sounds, I’d pursue the van until it stopped (if it wasn’t already stationary), park nearby, buy an ice-cream, and hover around until the queue had disappeared. Then I’d approach, briefly summarise my project, and conduct my semi-structured interview—designed to elicit all the van owner’s experiences and thoughts regarding chimes. Only a small minority of owners declined. Most were eager to talk. I remember a couple of responses especially clearly: a huge Italian man threw up his arms and said “Of course I like the music. If you don’t like-a da music you don’t like-a da ice-cream”; another guy said something along the lines of “Honestly, it’s a nightmare. I get home and the tune is still going round and round in my head—sometimes I can’t sleep”. Someone else had removed the usual tinkly ice-cream chime and had rigged up a huge stereo system blaring out jungle music. Nowadays, it seems that the chimes are UK-made [see below], but back then, I remember people telling me that they typically bought Swiss-made music boxes. One man did things rather differently, having a special box made for his fleet of vans that played a Welsh hymn in a computer game beeping kind of style (he was servicing a patriotic rural area in the valleys). The van owners made some interesting comments about territory too—how they would listen out for others’ chimes as they drove around, making sure not to get too close.

A Guardian article by Laura Barton from 2013 reminds us of the distinctive sounds of the British summer, like the low, sweet call of the wood-pigeon and the distant sound of leather on willow. Some history:

The earliest chimes were operated like a music box and fitted with a magnetic pickup and amplifier. It wasn’t until 1958 that transistors transformed the van chime, along with amplifiers that could be fitted to the vehicle’s battery. Traditional British ice-cream vans have tended to use Grampian Horn loudspeakers, angled downwards, towards the road, to diffuse the sound, and though the technology has improved sound quality, the distinctive tinniness of the ice-cream van’s call is largely regarded with affection.

This sounds like a candidate for the nostalgia of Memory Lane UK. Now, indeed,

in a move that has brought jubilation to the ice-cream industry, chimes can play for up to twelve seconds rather than four; and once every two minutes, instead of three. Vans may also now chime while stationary.

YAY! Although this ruling is not actually to be blamed on the bureaucrats of Brussels, it’s just the kind of victory in which the Minister for the 18th century would exult—apparently evidence of the staggering success of Brexit (Yeah Right), liberation from the yoke of Brussels red tape, along with the right to feast on bendy bananas.

As to repertoire, a representative of MicroMiniatures, leading company for the manufacture of the chimes, explained that among the most popular tunes are O sole mio, Greensleeves, and Match of the day, as well as Jerusalem, The stripper (um…), Nessun dorma, Cherry ripe, and Waltzing Matilda (the BTL comments to this 22-minute (!) YouTube compilation open with a list; for further detail, click here).

John Bonar of Piccadilly Whip [Ah, the coy innuendo of British punning!] commented, “We’ve just always used the Pied Piper since the start, so all the vans we order come with that tune. You get pretty sick of it. But whatever tune you’d have you’d get pretty tired of it.”

If you find 22 minutes a tad excessive, there’s quite an array of more succinct medleys on YouTube, such as this:

The sonority makes me wonder if Indonesian ice-cream vans borrow from the gamelan…

* * *

For Taiwan, in a refreshing change from studies of ancient nanguan ballads, another recent Guardian article explores the island’s musical garbage trucks. Recycling (sic) research dating back many years, a recent article by Chinese-music scholar

addresses the topic in detail.

Garbage in Taiwan is at the centre of a musical assemblage that resonates beyond the confines of the nightly waste collection soundscape. Garbage trucks in Taiwan are musical: Beethoven’s Für Elise or Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska’s Maiden’s Prayer announce the garbage truck brigade’s arrival at designated times and places throughout urban Taipei. Neighbours stream into the street for a turn at depositing their pre-sorted waste into the proper receptacles. Taiwan’s semi-tropical climate, combined with a densely situated human population and the presence of well established rat and cockroach populations, makes garbage management a matter of daily urgency.

Guy traced Taiwan’s pop music “from the early 1980s through to the present as evidence of ways in which everyday habits and practices of reckoning with waste have seeped into a wide range of sensibilities”.

Despite efforts to diversify the repertoire, it has remained far more limited than that of British ice-cream vans. A maiden’s prayer was preloaded onto trucks bought from Japan in the 1960s, and has remained strangely tenacious. The other dominant tune is Beethoven’s Für Elise, apparently preloaded onto trucks bought from Germany.  Now embedded in the Taiwanese psyche, the sound of the garbage trucks has been incorporated into modern Taiwanese culture:

And I would heartily concur with

“Whenever I hear Für Elise, I feel like I need to take out the garbage as well.”

To my ears the stark monophony of this limited repertoire sounds more alien, even sinister, than our jovial ice-cream-van jingles—but I quite recognise that they serve different contexts, so maybe I’m just orientalising… And while these instances may be considered muzak in the broad sense of manipulating behaviour, they serve to alert the community—closer to the use of muzak in 1950s’ factories than to the subliminal aural conditioning that anaesthetises us in elevators or shopping malls.

Cf. Thinking outside the (music) box, What is serious music?!, The art of the miniature, and even The call to prayer.

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