11 – Random Acts Of Elevator Music

Matt Adair and Nick Wilson performed Random Acts Of Elevator Music at the 2006 Melbourne Fringe Festival.

“Appearing spontaneously in elevators throughout the city, Random Acts of Elevator Music enlighten the consciousness of office workers with live muzaktronica.” – City Frequencies.

Matt Adair and Nick Wilson
Matt Adair & Nick Wilson (image via City Frequencies)

Matt and Nick built a synthesiser and a keyboard into briefcases and carried them into elevators all over Melbourne’s CBD.

They performed in over 100 elevators and were evicted from around half of them.

They repeated the performance for a second time in 2009 before turning their attention to other creative projects.

The full Random Acts Of Elevator Music tour diary is available via the City Frequencies website.


Credits & Thanks

Matt Adair – City Frequencies

Featured image via Bandcamp


Yes Hi my name is Matt Adair and I am one part of Random Acts of Elevator Music

Music starts

Lindsey: You’re listening to People Movers: a podcast highlighting the impact of escalators on everyday life. This episode is about Random Acts Of Elevator Music which was first performed as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival in 2006, followed by a second tour in 2009. Here’s Matt with the story.

The artistic project me and a friend have, Nic Wilson, is called City Frequencies. That started with the first City Frequencies project where we mapped in the audio spectrum 24 hours in the CBD and then presented that at a Next Wave Festival in the lower Melbourne Town Hall where we had surround sound and recreated from dawn to the next day dawn all the things we could hear in the CBD, edited, juxtaposed with other things including buskers, day to day sounds, environmental sounds, ambient sounds, and a few quirky things and the result of people being in a space 01:21 and the sound that they make in all manner of things they do.

And then after that we decided to be a bit more active in our role and so we decided to instead of recording what’s around us we decided to play music into an environment  and we had a name – Random Acts of Elevator Music and we had an idea to only use battery powered keyboards or synthesisers or music making machines

And then we progressed to we should dress up in suits, we should hide all our music gear in suitcases and look like business people. Or what we think are business people. And then try and walk into these elevators and play music inside an elevator until something happens. And over the period of the 2 years we ran this project I think we averaged close to 50% being evicted from an elevator by either the building manager or security, another 40% was playing the entire 40 minute set to, not rapturous applause but people being happy we were there and then there was a smaller number of elevators where we were not getting any audience and basically sitting in an elevator that wasn’t moving and so we thought there was no point. It’s that artistic thing – do you keep play to an audience of none? Well we’d said no so we’d go to the next elevator. So that’s the progression of how we went from recording the CBD to standing in elevators for 40 minutes playing music.

We were conscious of the fact that elevators are pretty small. We didn’t want to play a style of music or a genre of music that would be annoying to people, it also had to be battery powered so ideally that would be electronic music but it should be following on from the idea of elevator muzak where you have piped music in foyers and elevators to soothe the worker so we made an approximation of what we thought elevator music should sound like but a bit more musically interesting to us. So it was kind of melodic but generally ambient which was how it started out but as we played for 40 minutes in all these elevators we evolved the music and eventually it did become a bit more melancholic and slightly spooky from being in elevators for 4-5 hours a day. I think our batteries lasted somewhere between 4-5 hours depending on how long a set went. So we’d spend that time in an elevator which was an experience in itself.

We’d go in, sometimes depending on the businesses of the building there’d be other people in there, we’d press the button to go to the top floor, we’d wait for the elevator to get up there, then once it was there, we’d set up and then wait for someone to call the elevator. Someone could call it within seconds so we got it down to quite a speedy set up, other times the elevator would just sit there for a long time and you’d hear this gentle rocking and the sounds of other elevators whooshing around.

So we would start probably around 10:30 or 11. we’d stop at lunch and we’d do another session in the mid afternoon so I think that was kind of the idea was to not get in the way because I mean if you’re working 9 to 5 job the last thing you want is some clown in an elevator taking up the room so you can’t get home you know. So we were conscious of that, trying to stay out of their way.

We divided the CBD into 8ths giving an area that we could drag all this equipment around and not tire ourselves out. The grid of the CBD was divided into 8ths and we would try to get 3-4-5 elevators earmarked for each area but that would change if we got kicked out of many of them in which case we’d have to find more quickly. Or if we played a full set then our batteries would only last for 4 complete sets so that would pretty much stop our performances

The ideas was that we’d spontaneously appear in an elevator but we also wanted people to come and see us if that was possible, so two conflicting ideas. So on the day we would post to our website a picture of the building we were about to enter and then give an address and then we would get in the elevator and set up and then I’d take another picture of us playing and then put that on the website and Twitter and hopefully people would see it and some people did voluntarily come and find us and would run around the corridors looking for us in elevators or they would hear this wafting music as the elevator passed through the floors. We had people suggesting elevators for us so they would look out for us as well. I think the total if I can find the information on my old website…it was over 100. Of which there was 46-50% success rate.

We were pretty indiscriminate other than the fact that we had to be able to get in to the elevator, that was pretty much our only requirement. Obviously the larger buildings are more interesting to get into but I think the smallest one we got into was ACMI which is just a bit outside the CBD and that only went 3 floors, so that was not very exciting as an elevator ride but we didn’t really go for that we were always going by what building we could get into. And the last tour specifically there were more and more of those entry gates in the foyer where you’d have to have a swipe card to open them and so we couldn’t go into that building. We got evicted from some places where we managed to walk through open gates, the idea being that we wouldn’t actively try and contravene any idea of stopping people from going in, we’d just happily walk in as if we belonged there and if someone said ‘show us your ID’ we’d say we don’t have any ID and we’d leave but if we could, we’d walk straight in, get into the elevator and start playing and that was pretty much our criteria for entry: could we get in? and yes we could more often than not.

You could walk in there looking like you belonged but the moment you did something different, which in our case could be be seen as not going anywhere with purpose, we were staying put, that could cause a problem. The other problem we had was making music which wasn’t very loud because we were playing for an elevator so it wasn’t a loud sound. You could hear it in the foyer or lobbies as we passed but I don’t think it was that disturbing, it was more the concept. We had one security guard, he’d had a call from one of the tenants saying there was someone playing a piano in the elevator and his first thought was ‘how the hell did they get a piano in the elevator?’

And of course because part of breaking down the problem was what we were doing was Nick had an actual synthesizer which was about a metre wide and it had piano keys on it so you could look at it and see that’s a keyboard that plays music. I however was using a suitcase with a battery powered computer in it with a screen and that doesn’t really indicate what I’m doing. A computer and a device, you can’t tell what anyone is doing.

So it was a kind of weird thing where you were doing something that wasn’t expected. And I think we recorded one security guard and he was saying he didn’t know what to do about it but it was just something he thought he should stop and it was like that’s fair enough. But other than that I don’t think there was physically a reason for us not to be in there.

There tended to be a tone of an elevator or a tone of an elevator within a building. So some elevators you could tell that the audience for want of a better word weren’t happy and we wouldn’t be staying for very long and we could sense that.

People that were clearly transferring from floor to floor within a company for instance would invariably have an important piece of paper in their hand and a furrowed brow and would be interrupted essentially by this random thing and it could break I guess their concentration or whatever thought process they have and the reaction is don’t do that. 

You’d sort of pick up on that vibe when someone isn’t happy that you just happen to be there and I think that was buildings with people very I wouldn’t say self-important because that’s cruel but people that were busy doing things. More relaxed companies probably had a more relaxed workforce maybe and so that vibe would tend to be happier and you could pick that up pretty quickly and as well if someone engaged in conversation with you then you sort of know they’re okay with you being there and that was generally a nice reaction to get that they would be pleasantly surprised that something so silly would be happening in their building. 

If they sternly look at you and then turn away then you think well that’s that elevator etiquette of don’t look at people don’t talk to people just stare at the numbers or whatever you’re doing. So we did break that in some ways.

There’s an expectation when people are standing in it they’re expecting this thing to end. So comments and glances are hurried and they’re watching where’s my floor where’s my floor. I’m out of there. And so there’s this tangible sense that they’re not really going to engage in something because it’s going to be so short lived that there’s no point. It’s like bumping into someone in the street and saying “hi sorry on you go”.

It’s that thing where you go into an environment and you read the room or read the air or whatever phrase you want to use and you have a sense whether it’s okay to say or do something. So a lot of the times even in elevators which are quite packed with say five to eight people there would be silence and there’d be glances at each other and then it would take one brave soul to say something and then everyone else had the permission to then engage in conversation and talk to us or each other and refer to things going on. Sometimes they wouldn’t even talk to us. They’d talk to each other about us basically commenting on the fact that there’s two people who we don’t know playing this music, what we call music, in the elevators and they don’t have jobs or this is a good life for some. We should do this next week or we should get them to come at the Christmas party that sort of thing, but never to us but to each other which is again still an interesting observation to make I think.

I don’t think I want to spend that much time in an elevator ever again quite frankly after the first few days I’d end up with something akin to sea legs where I’d get this constant rocking sensation in my head. So I’d have to lie down for an evening just to stop that and then I could go and behave as you normally would as you regain your land legs as it were. So yeah I don’t I don’t want to do it again. That’s over with.

Lindsey: You can follow People Movers on Instagram: we’re at people movers podcast. Full transcripts and more information can be found at peoplemovers podcast dot com. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your podcast app of choice. 

Some of the music in this episode was provided by Tim and Dave of Umbra. Find them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/umbraduo.

Find out more about Random Acts Of Elevator Music including their tour diaries and a recording of their full live set, at cityfreqs.com.au. That’s city F-R-E-Q-S.

And before you go, I wanna tell you about another podcast you might like.

It’s called One To Grow On and it’s a podcast that digs into questions about agriculture and tries to understand how food production impacts us and our world.

It’s hosted by Hallie and her Dad, Chris. Hallie is the expert and she makes everything really easy to understand for people who might not be experts, like me. 

They just finished a 4-part series about organic agriculture. At the start I knew as much about organic agriculture as Hallie’s Dad, which was not a lot: we knew you can’t use pesticide on your crops and it costs more to buy in the supermarket.

But there’s so much more to it than that and I learned a lot! 

You can find the show at onetogrowonpod.com or wherever you find podcasts.

Until next time – start paying more attention to the escalators around you. You might be surprised by what you discover.