Ergot Records label head Adrian Rew finds readymade plunderphonics and corporate mind control on the gambling floor.
I crossed the threshold of my first casino floor in Cleveland, Ohio, last March. Previous to this first visit, I never anticipated that my friends and family would become concerned about my habit, or the increasing frequency with which I now drive out to the casinos of Chicago's suburbs. Granted, my heart rate accelerates at the sight of an anticipatory billboard: “Easy to get to... Hard to leave!”, and by the time I reach the dazzling colossus of a casino set against a wasted industrial sky, and hear the first sounds of the slot machines, I am bordering on ecstasy. But the truth is, I spend more on gas than gambling, and while my symptoms may resemble a gambler's, I am no addict. Rather, it is the casino's sonic ambience that I crave.
Casino advertisements foreground the excitement of chance and risk as the defining characteristics of the gambling business, but few spaces exert their control so powerfully. They leave nothing to chance. Sure, a lucky winner might hit a jackpot every once in a while, but the payout is always compensated for by the house edge and probability models; strategic dominance ensures that for every big win there are thousands of small losses. The gaze of surveillance cameras prominently placed across a casino ceiling is the most immediately apparent method of control, but on closer scrutiny the environment reveals a multisensory system of coercion.
The more comfortable, mollified, and energised the gambler, the more likely they are to stick around feeding money into machines. Companies like AromaSys and Air Esscentials provide artificial fragrances to "create a relaxing and inviting environment that gamers don't want to leave". Temperature and lights are regulated to be as inconspicuous as possible. Aside from a tinted glass entrance, windows are entirely absent, with clocks nowhere to be found, creating a space with no reference to the passage of time, thus no indicators that one should move on. Despite many of my visits occurring well after midnight, the free coffee and soft drinks keep me from fatigue. The free alcohol turns stingy gamers into spendthrifts. Disorientating, psychedelic carpets are laid over architecture designed with gently curving contours that push the gamer towards machines and game tables. To get to any other destination in the casino – the bathrooms, elevators, restaurants, or exits – requires navigating a labyrinthine gaming area. Wandering aimlessly around one casino, I found myself lured down steps leading into a slot machine area. The only way out was up, but the path of least resistance would lead me straight to a game.
Once seated in the comfortable game furniture, gambling is inevitable. Some seats vibrate in sync with game events in order to try and consummate a chimeric union of human and machine. Every button on the interface pulses and glows, cycling through a rainbow of hypnotising colours. Once inserted, cash is immediately changed into credits, dematerialising gamers' money in an attempt to make it easier to spend. The digitally animated reels on slot machines give an illusion of irregular mechanical functioning, but to those who have kept their heads, this illusion serves only to highlight the hyperreality engulfing the gamer-cum-cyborg. Near misses on would-be jackpot wins keep the player optimistic, and reward cards maintain statistical tabs on the player's behaviour so that profit geared adjustments can be made to the gamer's mood.
During a Christmas time visit, the song “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” blares from speakers in the casino ceiling: “He knows when you're sleeping/e knows when you're awake”. A reminder to watch my back, but also an unfortunately seasonal intrusion upon my motive for being there: to soak up the sounds of the slots and video machines in themselves. Like every other aspect of casino design, sonics are meant to induce gamers to spend more. Background Muzak seems to change with the time of day: calmer music during the day soothes more sedate players without being obtrusive, and louder, beat driven music appears at night to keep players energised. While most other variables of the casino atmosphere remain constant, the soundscape is always in a state of flux, not only depending on the time, but also the number of players. A trip in the early morning might reveal exhausted gamers under a shower of Christmas music. But early evening excursions allow the ensemble of machines to unfurl their sonorous potential, when enough gamers are playing to make the slot machines ring, and before the background music is turned up to full Friday night volumes.
During my first visit, the deafening sounds of a prime time casino left a deep impression. A cornucopia of slot machine tones coalesced into an aleatoric symphony that reminded me of my favourite ambient records: Laraaji's Day Of Radiance; Iasos's Inter-Dimensional Music; James Ferraro circa 2008–2009.
I originally heard that casino game designers tune their machines to the key of C major, in the belief that this creates a universally pleasing harmonic cohesion, but later learned that this is no longer strictly true. Although the key of C still holds sway in the design of many machines, a more diverse range of sounds is now used, to maximise entertainment – not only are players now witness to animated cash explosions and effervescent fish bubbles, but also the music of Michael Jackson, The Monkees, and Kiss. Legacy games like the classic Wheel Of Fortune preserve the sonic signatures of past machines and, due to their number, continue to dominate the sound of the casino floor. Machines are clustered together to create cosy enclaves accompanied by a cascade of looping motifs that trap players in gambling loops. On screen volume control allows gamers to modulate their experience – many contributors to slotmachineforums.com say that they avoid silent games, instead favouring immersing themselves in games at maximum volume.
Exciting, ebullient sounds that punctuate the droning cycle of the slot lever loop are meant to hit when successful spins occur, but these can be misleading: a gamer betting $1 who wins a meagre return of 25 cents will still hear a triumphant sound, leading players into thinking they are winning more than they really are, and compelling them to play for longer. The emergence of multiple paylines in video slots now allow gamers to bet on a multiplicity of winning combinations, ensuring that few spins will land dead. Conversely, there is no unpleasant tone corresponding to a loss. The only discouraging sound is a harsh metal grating that accompanies the single smart move a gambler can make: the cash out. Even then, the money comes in the form of a voucher.
Although game names (Wild Zone, Twilight Zone, Playboy Hot Zone) should have tipped me off, the work of anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll helped me understand the trancelike state in which problem gamblers suspend themselves. Drawing from the terminology of video gambling addicts, academic researchers, and industry professionals, in her book Addiction By Design she calls this altered state "the zone", where the rhythmic flow of human-machine collusion can create a near mystical experience. Sometimes characterised as the crack cocaine of gambling, the zone of video machines is a timeless realm, free of all worldly concerns. I had already done plenty of casino recording when I read her book, but the influence of Schüll's research gave my project a more polemical thrust. Seizing upon the term's similarity with the vernacular of synth heads, I set out to bring the mesmerising sonic attributes of the zone to an audience without the harsh financial comedown of its unfortunate reality.
My project eventually brought me to Las Vegas, where one night, exhausted by virtual bombardments, I came across what seemed like an anomaly on The Strip: a mechanical horse race game called Sigma Derby. Five painted horses circle the track every few minutes with up to ten gamblers betting on combinations of two winning horses. Unlike every other machine I had seen, this relic accepted quarters as bets and, more importantly, it dispensed quarters as winnings, effecting a welcome reification of capital in the face of video machines' virtual credit. This atavism was also sonically manifested: industrial music in the midst of new age ambience. Players leaned over the track and spoke to each other, restored to reality in a giant simulacrum of a city, instead of losing themselves in the void of vertical screens.
My Slot Machine Music recordings are hardly without precedent. Other notable field recordings of casinos include the manipulated pachinko parlor sounds of Jean-Claude Eloy's Gaku-No-Michi (Disques Adès, 1979) and Ilios' Kenrimono (Pan, 2009), as well as the untreated Vegas recordings of the first side of Jonathan Coleclough's Casino (IDEA, 2002). Japanese pachinko parlors present an entirely unique soundscape, but the sonic jumps between the Sigma Derby game (introduced in 1985), Casino, and my own recordings suggest worlds of difference in progressive eras of American casino development. Coleclough's 1998 recording, for instance, features the underlying drone of the contemporary casino without today's simulated Star Wars battles and pharaoh magic. A turn-of-the-century saloon filled with mechanical slots and coins crashing into metal trays suggests an accidental Futurist Orchestra of noisy slot players, predating Luigi Russolo's The Art Of Noises.
I met my only casino acquaintance at the Sigma Derby game: a sound composer for Bally Technologies’ games who insisted that neither himself nor other game designers are diabolical scientists trying to manipulate gamblers. Instead, he suggested, they strive to maximise the entertainment value of a game for the best experience possible. He said that he records casino ambience to use as a compositional blank canvas. Though Schüll decries the industry's more insidious techniques, she also provides insights into the composition process: she writes that a team of game designers spent an entire month perfecting a single “ding” sound on one machine.
A game's entertainment value cannot be divorced from its malignant effects, but Schüll's outright condemnation of casino atmospherics is reductive. Avoiding both extremes, I have come to reinterpret my recordings of the zone. Though I once considered myself to be in the zone during casino recording sessions, I realised that in an attempt to materialise the zone by preserving it, I was sacrificing a potential experience of ecstatic presence. The act of recording with a microphone made me a more active listener, but it was also hindering me. Recording of any kind is prohibited in casinos, so I had to keep my microphone hidden while attempting to protect it from interference. This became a burden when squeezing in between two gamblers at particularly resonant machines; and it made surrounding gamblers paranoid, especially when I would circle a jackpot winner for minutes at a time trying to steal the sounds of their win.
Without money, the flow of the space's architectural contours is rendered ineffective; an instinctive path leads to the games, but lacking the means to play, one drifts about the space, taking in the sounds and creating a subjective acoustic experience by following the most tantalising sonic cues. A tactical response to totalising casino strategies, this approach appropriates the space as a plunderphonic readymade, a 24 hour sound installation set in a hallucinatory playground. The unmoored soundwalk affirms the qualities of chance and play that the casino falsely simulates. In an age when arts funding gets cut while taxable casinos proliferate, why not take advantage of the space as the aesthetic object it could be?