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The Useless Hell

In the musical theater performance »Calls to this number are being diverted« Matthew Grouse puts the absurd working life of late modernity under the microscope.

The fear of having to take a completely unimportant, yes, pointless, job in order to pay the rent has always been deep within me. I've always had great compassion for the people who were forced to do that.

A job in a call center stands out to me as one of the worst things I could ever imagine: a job where I was tasked with disturbing randomly selected people at work or at home to ask them to answer questions that I knew would have very little effect or benefit. I have too much respect for other people's time and chores to ever bring myself to do that. Fortunately, it has never been necessary for me to take a job in any call center.

Such jobs have existed throughout most of the late modern era in much of the world. They are partly covered by the term pseudo work, which the anthropologist Dennis Nørmark and the philosopher Anders Fogh Jensen launched in their joint debate book of the same title from 2018. The term denotes all the work that basically makes no difference, but still exists because measurability, management paradigms and evaluation culture have come so prevalent in the same era.

Of course, it didn't take long before the job got to him, it annoyed him, compromised him

Jobs of this type – and several others with them – have been labeled with the unforgettable term McJob, as it happened in the American author Douglas Coupland's novel Generation X from 1991. The term denotes the optimally boring and perspective-less jobs, which are unskilled and thus poorly paid, and which have no potential whatsoever from a career perspective. It could be jobs at a McDonald's (hence the name), where you might at least learn something useful about customer care, or it could be a job as an employee in a call center. The fact that, conversely, there are quite lucrative jobs such as newspaper sellers, who are paid on commission and can earn quite a lot, shows that the whole thing is definitely not completely black and white.

The human comedy

The English, Denmark-based composer Matthew Grouse knows what he's talking about when he sets his new, music theater performance Calls to this number are being diverted, in a call center. He knows what absurdities such a job can entail in relation to being tasked with retrieving answers from fellow human beings to irrelevant questions. When we meet on an ordinary afternoon at the Royal Library in Copenhagen, on of the first things Grouse tells me is that he himself has extensive experience of working in a call center. For a period of two years, he worked for a company where his task was to facilitate customer satisfaction surveys – disturbingly, sometimes also with businesses that were not customers of the company at all.

Of course, it didn't take long before the job got to him, it annoyed him, compromised him. However, at the same time he saw an artistic opportunity in it, i.e. in using working time to observe the job and its functions from the outside, so to speak. Precisely through this job, he would be able to gain some insights which could subsequently be used as raw material in his own, self-chosen and deeply meaningful work as a composer. Not least because he works within a framework that draws on both the absurdist theater of the post-war years as well as the newer, music-dramatic tradition, in which the Argentinian-German composer Mauricio Kagel is central. Calls to this number are being diverted has thereby come about as the result of quite extensive fieldwork in the area and in some ways, in addition to financial necessity, even contributed to him staying in the job.

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The description of the fieldwork in the performance has particularly sent Grouse in the direction of the grotesque, even the grotesquely funny. He says it himself in the way that the performance is absurd in a surreal way or surreal in an absurd way. In that sense, the work embodies a late modern version of the 19th-century French writer Honoré de Balzac's so-called human comedy, an extensive novel in which the follies, trivialities, sufferings and realizations of humanity are examined. In the 21st century, human comedy is also about professionally wasting other people's time, and of course feeling like an idiot while doing it. But Grouse sees precisely an opportunity in this: to act as a special emissary whose secret task is to explore the characteristics of the human mind through the act of unwittingly calling up other people and starting to ask them scripted questions of an evaluative nature about a given topic.

The chatbots will not be of much use here: They naturally have no ethical compass programmed into them

From a project description that Grouse sent me prior to the interview, it appears that Calls to this number are being diverted is somewhere between so-called new music, experimental theater with audience participation and interactive installation art. Hold music plays a central role in the performance as the music that, behind its apparently »unmusical« properties, hides surprising musical potentials, among other things due to the monotonous and trance-inducing nature of the repetition. The project description assures us that pitch-black humor permeates things from start to finish. Since Matthew Grouse's take on the subject is autobiographical, he is not only the composer of the performance, but also its librettist. Although he has worked extensively in the past to create words for his works, this is the first time in his still relatively short career that he has connected with it on such a large scale. It has really been something of a mouthful, he admits. But a good mouthful, he asserts.

Matthew Grouse has an immediate lightness about him that almost makes one forget the heaviness he also has. He really means what he does and he does it in an almost carefree way. He laughs heartily as he confides in me that his musical theater performance can be seen in a way as a ritual farewell to a type of job that will soon no longer exist because the chatbots will very soon take over. Asking the same mindless questions to a company or individual no longer requires human involvement, but there will still be companies that will find it ethically justifiable to waste other people's time by calling them up and asking them a bunch of questions. The chatbots will not be of much use here: They naturally have no ethical compass programmed into them.

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Grouse elaborates: »Calls to this number are being diverted is an obvious critique of all the futile work we humans do in our many job functions. The call center is a metaphor in the sense that there is also an immeasurable amount of other work in the world that can appear just as meaningless. The show dwells on the absurdity of the meaningless job functions in this world, while at the same time it is also an elegy on the fact that we as humanity have even created a need for this type of job, which does us no good, and which, as it were, just makes us all in a worse mood, regardless of where in the system we are: as those who call, as those who are called, or as those who subsequently have to process the incoming data.«

»There was something trance-like about the whole thing because I had to listen to so much hold music«

Daydreams and hold music

»When I was working in the call center,« Grouse continues, »I was fascinated by the idea that I could work nine hours a day calling people and not get anything but not get anything but hostility from those on the other end of the phone. Only exceptionally would someone take the time to answer and thereby ensure that I could gain some constructive knowledge from my endeavors.« He smiles again as he says, »Sometimes only two out of dozen of calls would lead to full responses. It sounds like an incredibly low result,  but I was among those, in my small team, who had the highest 'answer percentage. I thus felt that I achieved a certain status with my boss because I sometimes managed to get through twice a day!« He goes on to say: »But in my work I also spent a lot of time daydreaming. In particular, I daydreamed about what I would have spent all this time doing if I could have it back. At the same time, there was something trance-like about the whole thing because I had to listen to so much hold music when I was in line to get to talk to someone. It made me think a lot about the concept of time and how much time I was directed to spend listening to musical sounds whose function was to make me linger and not hang up, even though the music gave me the desire to do just that – that is, an impulse which worked against the professional side of me in the situation.«

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Matthew Grouse reflects on these experiences by saying, »There's something about the quality of this music that fascinates me. One thing is that the sound quality is usually very low, which means that there are sometimes strange artefacts caused by interference and compression in addition to the communication of the telephone medium itself. Another thing is that the music typically loops in some very unusual places, which means that it can appear quite musically unintuitive. It's really funny to hear how the music sometimes suddenly stops for a split second, after which it starts again as if nothing had happened. After some time I started to listen more analytically to the music, which proved quite entertaining. It became almost like a sport for me to find out how the loop worked from time to time.«

He continues: »But of course it also had a price to be a musically-inclined person and then have to spend hours every day listening to hold music. It is music whose function is to go in one ear and out the other. But it rarely did for me, and because the information density in the music is often very low and the intention so mechanical, it takes a certain resilience not to be depressed by it.« But he also states: »Nevertheless,  I often got a kick out of listening to the hold music because I'd notice small deviations, an odd and unidiomatic choice in harmony or whatever it may be.«

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I ask Matthew Grouse if he has any expectations of how the audience will react to the show's handling of music that is made to be repeated ad absurdum. He replies: »I am fully aware that the performance is about something completely mundane, and that it may risk making the audience find themselves in a kind of defensive position from the very beginning. A certain critical distance is necessary to be able to endure the subject at all, one might say. But precisely this critical distance can perhaps help the audience to see more clearly how much modern people actually spend their time – that is: waste it – on being put on hold in their everyday lives, at the doctor, at their electricity company, at their car mechanic. Maybe my work can also help the audience to see the absurd-comedy in it, and just laugh at the whole situation – instead of, as is so often the case, being frustrated by the wait and the often annoying music you are left to listen to.«

Cold calls

In Calls to this number are being diverted we follow Anna and Andreas in the Re-sounding Success call center, one of whom has already worked there for some time, while the other is being trained in the job. In the performance, we see the two attempt to conduct telephone interviews with companies, a task made difficult by the fact that these companies have their own rules for communication. Therefore, among other things, Anna and Andreas must speak with their mouths closed, sing and turn their office equipment into musical instruments in order to make themselves understood. In their work, they subsequently ask the companies they come up against  to rate their satisfaction with a range of products – not by choosing a number in a pre-given point system, however, but rather by asking them to choose a particular musical jingle from a range of excerpts. »It's a move which in itself emphasizes the absurdity,« admits Matthew Grouse.

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Along the way, calls will also be made out into the hall to the audience, where hopefully someone will pick up the phone set up before the performance. The audience interaction itself obviously has the function of pointing to the almost situational element of the whole work – that what is happening is something we can all face in our daily lives when the phone rings, and the curiosity of not knowing, whoever is on the other end makes us take it. In call center lingo, it's called a cold call, where you call without prior agreement.

About the performance's music, Grouse says, »I try to write music that, rather than simply mimicking the aesthetics of hold music in a one-to-one way, tries to encapsulate what it feels like for me to listen to hold music. I try to pull this feeling out of the music, because I'm interested in the almost contemplative space that my ‘version’ of the hold music evokes.« He continues: »I employ, so to speak, cyclical, purgatorial sound worlds that have familiar aspects but have a twist via techniques such as microtonal tuning systems, subtle additions and changes every time a section loops, as well as irregular rhythmic manipulations.«

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Anna Jalving. © PR

But the music has different functions depending on what it should contain: »When Re-sounding Success plays their own hold music, you hear polystylistic pieces of music, almost always with a rhythmic drive/groove. It can be melancholic songs, thrash metal, sparse pointillistic music with text that is deconstructed and passed around the ensemble, or grotesque bluegrass and spoken rhythm as a driving force for instrumental music. During the moments where Anna and Andreas call, you hear a hybridized music of words that carry semantic meaning, as well as abstract instrumental, vocal and electronic sound – that is, what you could call an unclear middle ground between speech and music. In addition, there is a consistent use of the sounds of the office as found objects.«

»I am in no way making fun of the fact that such jobs exist«

Grouse says that he wants the audience to empathize with Anna and Andreas in their situation and see them as fragile beings even in the weird situation they find themselves in by working in a call center. I ask why we should feel sympathy for them, and he answers: »The piece of work is a kind of study of all the social and bureaucratic mechanisms that are present in this type of work, of which so many have become commonplace in late modern society. These are jobs that many employees do not want to do, but do it anyway just to avoid being fired. I am in no way making fun of the fact that such jobs exist, but with the call center as a specific angle, I still ask the question of why it is that there are so many incredibly miserable jobs that do not take the human behind the workforce seriously? And that gives rise to talk about the eternal question: How do we humans really use the short time we have on earth? Ok, now, as I said, the call center role will soon cease to be performed by humans, but still …«

When Grouse recalls his time in the call center, he also thinks that his otherwise critical attitude to the job was constantly challenged by his own comfort: »It's quite unbelievable that it happened, but I sometimes asked myself if the job really was that bad, because it paid my bills and gave me some kind of stability or in any case status as a working citizen. It actually scares me that I felt that way – but this psychological mechanism might also explain why so many people stay in these jobs, even though they feel like they're wasting their lives by being there.« He muses: »We humans are after all, composed of contradictions, where we both want one thing and the other, and Anna and Andreas are both emblems of that.«

 

»Calls to this number are being diverted« will be performed at Teater Refleksion in Aarhus on 2-4 February 2024, organized by Aarhus Unge Tonekunstnere (AUT). In the lead roles are the two musicians, accordionist Andreas Borregaard and violinist Anna Jalving, who both act and play. The hold music is played behind a screen by Joss Smith (clarinet, whistles, melodica and voice), Hsiao-Tung Yuan (percussion, keyboards, voice) and Kirstine Elise Pedersen (cello, guitar, voice).

In the weeks leading up to the performance, the audience can choose to receive a kind of performance over the phone. The phone call, which at first appears to be a generic cold call, quickly develops into one of a varied collection of short, unhinged compositions. The link to this is: https://forms.gle/Vpo3uKT2yfjwweEE9

Translated from Danish by Andreo Michaelo Mielczarek