Lovely Songs From The Big Hold, Inspired By Bureaucracy

Apr 8, 2021
Originally published on April 8, 2021 6:22 pm

A year ago, when people were losing jobs left and right, millions called their local unemployment agency. Like many states, Texas struggled to deal with the volume of people applying for unemployment — which meant busy signals and long hold times. When you're dealing with the soul-crushing inefficiency of a government bureaucracy pushed beyond its purposely limited limits, sometimes you have to make the best of it.

Justin Sherburn is a musician and composer in Austin, Texas, where he leads an ensemble called Montopolis. By this time last year, work for Sherburn had dried up. He called the Texas Workforce Commission, only to get a busy signal. "Nobody knew what was going on," he says. "And all I knew was that I was having my world fall apart and all my gigs cancelled."

That's when Sherburn found himself on the phone, on hold, waiting to apply for unemployment benefits. In the midst of that frustration and dread, something planted itself in the back of his mind. It wouldn't bloom until months later, but he was inspired to channel that feeling into music. Thus, the Texas Workforce Commission Hold Music project was conceived. Sherburn says it reflects the disorienting effects of quarantine and lock down — a psychological stasis. "You're just locked inside this bubble. That feeling of being on hold" he says. "Not necessarily being on hold, on the phone — but everything — existentially on hold."

The album is an ambient synth and cello arrangement exploring the same feeling of chaos, and everything that comes after. The first song on the Hold Music album is "Exceptionally High Volume," a piece that subtly nods to being on the phone. The piece "Not Busy Signal" does something similar: "I just started with that as a theme that goes throughout that song — just this boop boop boop," Sherburn says.

Justin also collaborated on the album with Sara Nelson, his spouse, who plays cello. They've spent the past year locked inside their own bubble. "There's upsides and downsides to working with the ones you love," he says. "But there's definitely an upside — a silver lining — being able to collaborate, make music during a pandemic."

Listening to hold music, however, just isn't the same if it's not on the phone. There's a tinny, distant quality that transforms real music into hold music. Sherburn made a phone line that replicates this, so anyone can preview tracks on the album and be put on hold — literally and existentially. Just dial 512-559-4739.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A year ago, when people were losing jobs left and right, millions of them called their states' unemployment agencies.

(SOUNDBITE OF RINGING PHONE)

AUTOMATED VOICE #1: Thank you for calling the Texas Workforce Commission. For English, press one. For Espanol...

SHAPIRO: Texas, like many states, struggled to deal with the volume of people applying for unemployment, which meant busy signals and long hold times. As Matt Largey of member station KUT in Austin tells us, that experience has inspired a few composers.

MATT LARGEY, BYLINE: When you're dealing with the soul-crushing inefficiency of a government bureaucracy pushed beyond its purposely limited limits, sometimes you have to make the best of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

ROSA GARDNER: (Singing) Oh, I'm waiting to hear from Texas Workforce Commission and Employment Office.

LARGEY: Rosa Gardner in San Antonio made this YouTube video while she was holding last year. Beneath the song, of course, there is real frustration - dread, even. The whole phone thing didn't help. And Rosa wasn't alone.

JUSTIN SHERBURN: It was really startling to not have any work, not have any hopes for any work and call the Texas Workforce Commission and get a busy signal.

LARGEY: Justin Sherburn is a musician and composer in Austin. He leads an ensemble called Montopolis. And by this time last year, work for Justin had dried up.

SHERBURN: Nobody knew what was going on. All I knew is that I was having, you know, my world fall apart and all my gigs canceled.

LARGEY: So that's when Justin found himself on the phone, on hold, with the Texas Workforce Commission to apply for unemployment benefits. And in the midst of that frustration and dread, his world falling apart, something planted itself in the back of his mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTOPOLIS' "EXCEPTIONALLY HIGH VOLUME")

LARGEY: It wouldn't bloom until months later, but he was inspired to channel that feeling into music. And so was born the "Texas Workforce Commission Hold Music" project.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTOPOLIS' "EXCEPTIONALLY HIGH VOLUME")

LARGEY: The album is kind of an ambient, synth and cello arrangement exploring that feeling of chaos and everything that came after.

SHERBURN: I think it's reflective of that really disorienting experience of quarantine and being locked down and that psychological stasis and just everything, you know? You're just locked inside this bubble. So I don't know. I felt like the ambient approach was really appropriate to sort of represent that lack of momentum (laughter).

LARGEY: That feeling of being on hold.

SHERBURN: Yeah. Yeah. Not necessarily on hold on the phone, but just everything - existentially on hold.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTOPOLIS' "EXCEPTIONALLY HIGH VOLUME")

LARGEY: This is a piece called "Exceptionally High Volume," the first song on the hold music album. Throughout, there are subtle nods to being on the phone, like on the track "Not Busy Signal."

SHERBURN: I just started with that as a theme that goes throughout, you know, that song. So it's just this...

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

SHERBURN: ...Boop (ph), boop, boop.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTOPOLIS' "NOT BUSY SIGNAL")

LARGEY: Justin collaborated on the album with Sara Nelson, who plays cello. They happen to be married, so they've spent the past year locked inside their bubble.

SHERBURN: It's really the story of us being a couple, married couple, and being in quarantine together and kind of, like, plotting and planning this album and then, you know, spending some time recording it.

LARGEY: That's interesting 'cause, like, you know, people stuck at home with their families during quarantine - you know, some folks have gotten sick of each other. But you guys collaborating, it sounds like this was - you know, in some ways, maybe this brought you closer together.

SHERBURN: Yeah, I think a lot of people have gone through that, probably, silver lining of, like, you know, there's upsides and downsides to working with the ones you love. But, you know, here's definitely an upside, you know, silver lining, being able to collaborate, make music during a pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTOPOLIS' "NOT BUSY SIGNAL")

LARGEY: Now, there's one more cool thing about this project. Listening to hold music just isn't the same if you're not on the phone - that tinny, distant quality that makes real music into hold music. So Justin made a phone line so anyone can preview a few tracks on the album.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIALING PHONE)

LARGEY: Just dial this number - 512-559-4739...

AUTOMATED VOICE #2: Welcome to the "Texas Workforce Commission Hold Music" hotline, presented by Montopolis.

LARGEY: ...And you, too, can be put on hold, literally and existentially.

AUTOMATED VOICE #2: Press two to preview "Not Busy Signal."

(SOUNDBITE OF DIALING PHONE)

LARGEY: For NPR News, I'm Matt Largey in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTOPOLIS' "NOT BUSY SIGNAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.