Laurence Osborn’s Essential Relaxing Classical Hits
In his 1959 study of identity, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, the sociologist Erving Goffman examined the role of performance in human interactions. Shakespeare was right, he surmised, that ‘All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players’. Whenever we present ourselves to other people, Goffman argued – whether on a date, at work, or just meeting friends – we are play acting the version of ourselves that we want to project.
Goffman was writing long before the internet, though, when the divisions between different compartments of our lives (as well as between onstage and offstage locations, like the workplace and the home) were more clearly demarcated. Sixty years later, in her essay ‘The I in the Internet’, the journalist Jia Tolentino revisited Goffman’s theory within the context of Web 2.0. If we are online all the time, she asks, reconstituting our identity in continuous trails of clicks and posts, how does that change things? There are still stages, she concludes; there is still an audience. ‘But the internet adds a host of other, nightmarish metaphorical structures: the mirror, the echo, the panopticon. … The everyday madness perpetuated by the internet is the madness of this architecture, which positions personal identity as the centre of the universe. It’s as if we’ve been placed on a lookout that oversees the entire world and given a pair of binoculars that makes everything look like our own reflection.’ In Tolentino’s reading, the continual performance of the self is ‘capitalism’s last natural resource’. Commodified through advertising, social media, clickbait and online outrage, the self is the petrol that keeps the digital economy’s engine running.
Laurence Osborn quotes Tolentino in the introduction to his score for Essential Relaxing Classical Hits, a song cycle in three volumes written for Ensemble Klang and the soprano Agata Zubel. ‘We live in a world in which our selves are constantly manipulated, commodified and sold’, he writes. ‘Corporations mine our personalities and preferences, turning our selves into profit; we are kept in a state of constant anxiety and envy, coerced into dogmatic cycles of self-assessment and self-optimization’. The oozing, slippery textures of his music certainly feel right for the queasily oleaginous nature of online identity. But his work brings to mind a solid petrochemical product too: PVC, and particularly its role as the constituent material of the vinyl LP. When vinyl replaced shellac in the late 1940s as a more durable and acoustically clean recording medium, it was manufactured in two competing formats: the 7-inch single and the 12-inch LP. Urged on by market forces, the latter (requiring greater investments of both time and money) was soon preferred for the more ‘adult’ genres of jazz, classical and easy listening, as opposed to the disposable single of teenage pop. By the mid-1960s – and thanks to the record-label funded experiments of the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Kinks and others – the album had established itself as an object of cultural capital, much like the book. As the recording industry grew exponentially over the following decades, the LP served as its principal fuel.
Consider an LP as a physical object, bought in a store and kept on a shelf. It is a rigid disc, with a surface inscribed with a pair of unbroken spirals, one on each side, whose 33 1/3 revolutions per minute produce the sounds you hear. Playing an LP is a natural two-act structure, separated with a silent intermission and a brief change in sensation from the aural to the tactile as the disc is lifted from its platter by its edges, flipped and placed back down. And finally, it is a fixed collection of songs, a sequence of beginnings and endings, shaped into a drama.
Before its finished three-volume form, Essential Relaxing Classical Hits was originally conceived as an album or setlist. It was spread over three sides rather than two, but otherwise it fit the model. Even in its final version, it can still be broken down into a nine- or ten-song tracklist, although the borders between songs have become more porous; less segmented album, more mixtape. Thinking about album forms got Osborn interested in ways in which to combine dramatic and heavily segmented structures. One example he references is Harrison Birtwistle and Stephen Pruslin’s Punch and Judy. ‘On a structural level that piece is completely extraordinary’, he says. ‘The way in which Birtwistle somehow creates a structure that is a linear structure, a circular structure and an incredibly articulated Lego structure, all combined: it’s almost like you can turn it in your hands and see it from a different set of dimensions depending on how you’re looking at it.’ By being more than one shape at once, then, Punch and Judy pushes the limits of what a coherent form is.
When Birtwistle and Pruslin composed Punch and Judy in 1966–7, they probably didn’t have Revolver, Sgt Pepper, Pet Sounds or The Village Green Preservation Society in mind. But the shapes of their two-act chamber opera are those of the album: a circle, a line and an articulated series, all at once. When I suggest to Osborn a further comparison with the recurring pianos and tap-dancers of Kendrick Lamar’s Mr Morale & the Big Steppers, he counters with Nick Cave’s Ghosteen, populated by images of children, ships and other wonders of cathartic grief.
Yet Osborn attenuates those shapes until they liquify. Oil is similarly multiform. Both flow and tar, it shines and soots, maintains and dissolves, burns quickly and endures – on everything, everywhere, forever. Lovingly, violently, Essential Relaxing Classical Hits plunges its listener into similar aesthetic dualities. From the jangling tuned bottles with which it opens (liquids inside solids), to the recurring images of moonlight, silver and water, the music gleams and glistens. But it also betrays and blackens: the breathing meditation that morphs into drowning in Volume 1 (‘Inhale, exhale … gape into the lake and inhale’); the gulping, looping gasps (‘feed me / feed me’) in the middle of Volume 2; and the psychic breakdown (‘Breathe / self needing revision / Close your eyes and lean’) that begins Volume 3.
Music is an essential constituent of the economy of the self. Commodified and repackaged, classical music ‘hits’ are sold to regulate and manipulate mood and emotion: balm for the anxious, exhausted worker; the pick me up to keep you at it. Corrupted by the marketplace, such pieces are repurposed by Osborn, in a process he acknowledges is both critical and complicit. Such is the nature of the commodified self: critiquing the machine also feeds the machine.
“Osborn’s text is similarly commodified, made up from advertising copy, online wellness videos and poetic cliches. They are the words by which we shape and speak our sense of identity.”
The albums these tracks might be found on are of a more amorphous kind than Revolver or Ghosteen: artistically incoherent compilations with titles like Soft Classical Music for Sleeping or Mozart and Chill. Curated (if that is not too strong a word) only as mood enhancement and ersatz emotion, they have no need for the precision of the circle, the line or the segment; in their place is a glutinous, formless mulch. No longer made for physical objects of like the LP, their natural medium is the atmospheric playlist; a fluid without a container. Not ‘bleeding chunks’ – Donald Tovey’s term for musical chops of ‘butcher’s meat’ belongs to Goffman’s time, when food came from bricks and mortar stores rather than supermarket apps – but dissolved solids; streaks within a thicker liquid. Osborn stirs five such pigments into his work, each refined to a different consistency and composition. In turn: Pachelbel’s Canon (just a bassline scaffold, almost fully evaporated); the second movement of Bach’s Orchestral Suite no. 3 (the ‘Air on the G String’, reduced to a melodic contour for alto trombone and soprano saxophone); Satie’s Gymnopédie no. 1 (a distant framework for a jazz-rock groove); a glutinous rendering of Debussy’s Clair de lune (played as though on a skipping CD, inspired by the viscid production techniques of alternative New York rappers like Earl Sweatshirt and Navy Blue); Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, no. 14 (settling darkly from a spill of overlaid, accelerated versions of itself); and the aforementioned sour-sweet arrangement of Gounod’s Ave Maria (itself a take on another classical hit, Bach’s Prelude no. 1 in C major).
Osborn’s text is similarly commodified, made up from advertising copy, online wellness videos and poetic cliches. They are the words by which we shape and speak our sense of identity, here reformed into horrifying, surreal and clownish images: leisurewear cyborgs, neocon gym bunnies, mindfulness trolls. ‘Want my surge-tech throat, race-back neck curved to pace-breaker back’, dreams one. ‘Human shrapnel / shower down’, screams another. ‘You will never stray. I will track the course you trace through the spray, and with my silver song, I will blind you’, promises a third. The words themselves were chosen and adapted after the music was written, matching their vowel sounds first to the register of any given note. As a consequence, the soprano can slide easily through her shape-shifting environment, singing into its flow rather than across it. Zubel, as performer, stages a continually evolving, continually fluid version of herself. (Once again, Osborn borrows the idea from hip-hop, in which words are used simultaneously for meaning and maintenance of the rapper’s flow.)
In the ‘The I in the Internet’, Tolentino imagines the networked self alone, on a rocky promontory, surveying the world through their self-reflecting binoculars. But the self that Osborn sees is in the water, immersed and inundated: drowning in solvents beneath the light of a digital moon. A different model of the self in the age of the internet, posited by the Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells in his magisterial study The Information Age, may be more pertinent. Writing around the turn of the century, Castells identified two fundamental changes that took place alongside the widespread adoption of the internet. The first is the gradual replacement of centralised real-world organisations (the ‘space of places’) by a virtual ‘space of flows’ constructed across and among digital networks. The second is a ‘timeless time’, identified in realms as diverse as the instantaneous transactions of financial markets and the disruptive impacts of birth control and reproductive medicine on the traditional life cycle. In the midst of the dissolution of the temporal and spatial landmarks by which life and society are organised, the self takes on a central and essential organising role in the form of a flow or a current. Like the iPod playlist that soundtracks our commute through the city – shuffling tracks, abandoning the circle and the line for an unbroken stream – subjective experience in the space of flows becomes ‘the main, and sometimes the only, source of meaning’. Thus liquified – like pressurised fossils at the bottom of the ocean – the self becomes not only capitalism’s petrol but also its lubricant. We are still players: although no longer merely.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson is a contemporary music journalist and musicologist. He is the author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (2017) and The Music of Liza Lim (2022), and editor of the sixth edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Music (2012).