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Arts & Culture

Lovely Songs From The Big Hold, Inspired By Bureaucracy

A musician, disoriented by his loss of work and the inefficiency of bureaucracy, made the best of waiting in line for unemployment by making music.
A musician, disoriented by his loss of work and the inefficiency of bureaucracy, made the best of waiting in line for unemployment by making music.

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.