Art Ensemble of Chicago, Nice Guys album cover
Art, Music, Books & Film

Table Music

The first thing I noticed about her was that she wasn’t wearing any shoes. Just a pair of polka-dotted white ankle socks. I was writing in my notebook and glanced at her feet before I looked up at her. “He was right there, didn’t you see him?” she said, pointing to one of the armchairs ranged around a low-lying wooden table three meters or so from where I was sitting. I could see a pair of scuffed low-heeled slingbacks next to one of the chairs.

I was sitting at a small table set against a wall of exposed brick that hosted posters telling the story behind the double espresso I was drinking. It must have been fair-trade coffee because all the peasants were happy. Everything about this place—the pair of hip young barristas poking fun at each other, the oversized latte and toothsome cakes, the customers absorbed in swiping their fingers across the cool sleek surface of their iPads or gently tapping their iPhones, as if engaged in some kind of soothingly rhythmic, meditative prayer, everything spoke of contentment. Especially the music, this characteristic mix of rock-steady reggae, vintage Dylan, bossa nova and country rock. Everything spoke of contentment except this distraught woman.

“He stole my purse!” She had the frightened look of a child who had dozed off during the bus ride home and missed the stop and now had awoken to a strange and dangerous part of the city.

She must have been in her early 50s, but the clothes she was wearing—a short red skirt and sequined blouse that sat uncomfortably on her short plump frame—looked as if they had come from her daughter’s closet. She had her ash-blond hair braided in a pair of tight spiral buns, one of each side of her head like woven earmuffs. I tried to remember where I had seen braids like that before. Old black-and-white stills of Rhine Maidens in some pre-war Ring production perhaps.

I had noticed her earlier, slouched in another of the armchairs in the nook. She had nodded off, her arms wrapped around her laptop as if it were a favorite doll. I had noticed the guy next to her as well, the one who in all likelihood had stolen her handbag, though he hadn’t looked much like a thief, except perhaps for the fact that he was there alone and without something to keep him company.

I suggested we call the police. I said I was willing to provide a description of the man. But she said it was useless. They wouldn’t bother looking for him. “You’ll need to go to the police anyway to report the theft of your identity card, no?” But the only thing she seemed to be worried about was her phone. I realized later that the phone was probably the only thing of value in her bag; she wasn’t the kind of person who’d be carrying credit cards or a lot of cash or indeed an identity card.

I wondered if her nap had been brought on by a sleepless night or the playlist. It was the kind of music you wanted to wrap yourself in and take a nap in, the musical equivalent of a chenille tweed throw blanket. Feel-good comfort music. That doesn’t make it bad music, of course. It’s just not that the kind of music that necessarily demands concentration. Even if sometimes the music can be worth listening carefully to. Even if was never written to be a backdrop to Kaffeeklatsch.

I think it was there that I first heard Marcia Griffths’ moving reggae version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and Madeleine Peyroux’s captivating Billy Holliday-esque “Summer Wind”. I stopped writing or people-watching or texting or whatever I was doing at the moment and actually listened to the music, which wasn’t all that easy. The song kept getting interrupted by the whirr of the blender at work on the row of frappucino orders at the bar below.

The playlist isn’t usually that adventurous, though. It must have to do with the location. Starbucks has its own record label and catalog company, and there must be a team of music connoisseurs and marketing people who put together the playlists that are sent to and then piped into the thousands of retail outlets around the globe, appropriately mixed for the demographics of each outlet. Mix of tourists looking for wifi and locals on a break from shopping and students writing a term paper. The occasional scribbler like myself getting a caffeine jolt before heading off to the gym. And now and then an over-aged red-skirted Rhinemaiden. I imagine Seattle and New Orleans get a more daring playlist than we do here.

I was telling Lena about this the other day over a late supperof roast-pepper omelet, tomato salad, aged Naxos gruyère and an oaked asyrtiko wine from the island of Santorini. It was a bit too earnest a meal to follow the screening of the frothy Hepburn-Grant classic Bringing Up Baby that we had just seen at a neighborhood open-air cinema. But it was the kind of meal you put together at the last moment from whatever’s at hand. Unlike a playlist, there was very little forethought in the makeshift menu. The constraints were few: it had to be fast to fix and couldn’t contain any of the things Lena didn’t eat, like onions or chili or garlic or capers or raisins (it’s actually quite a long list but most of the stuff she doesn’t care for, like salami or pâté, I don’t have in my house anyway). On the other hand the meal did obey some of the cardinal tenets of such list-making: the individual items all had to go together in some hard-to-define but unmistakable way and were put together with a specific audience in mind.

Lena told me about an unusual playlist she once heard in a supermarket It was so intriguing she had followed the trace of sound to a loudspeaker in the dairy section so that she could listen better. It was Sigur Rós. Icelandic post-rock in an Athens supermarket? She made as if she were inspecting the package labels on the packets of butter and slabs of feta in the display case so that the store help wouldn’t mistake her for a crazy woman and ask her to leave. That was the day she bought the yoghurt-butter she still slathers on her morning toast. “I was standing there for fifteen minutes listening to the music. Eventually the butter starting talking to me.”

Some playlists, like the music in a spinning class, have an almost linear narrative structure, progressing from an undemanding exposition of the theme(s) to follow and then building with rising tension to a climax before easing off in the session’s cool-down denouement. Others are more non-linear, like the gifts of music Nikolas compiles for me; there always seem to be several narratives going on at the same time, and the strands of plot are harder to discern and disentangle, the playlist equivalent of the storylines in Memento or Nashville (well, maybe not that many storylines).

I remember—because I still play it—something he put together for our island vacation last year. He called it A Polish Summer. But if it was summer, then it was the sumptuous yet fading glory of the end of summer, and the music, tender, plaintive and so full of yearning, was hauntingly beautiful. He had included Couperin’s La Sultane with its unusual pairing of bass viols, and Max Richter’s painfully moving On the Nature of Daylight. There was a sarabande from a Bach suite and the canzonetta from Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D, which the composer had intended to dedicate to the violinist and his lover at the time Iosif Kotek (but didn’t for fear of scandal). And Tom Waits’ All the World is Green and works by Wojciech Kilar, whom I didn’t know, though Nikolas told me he had scored Coppola’s Dracula. It was a wondrous gift. A playlist designed by a discerning and knowledgeable listener for an audience of friends.

There are linear and non-liner narrative playlists, and then there are playlists like the ones I hear at Starbucks, playlists that don’t tell any sort of story at all. Playlists that are meant to be as much a part of the décor, identity and ambience of the café as the exposed brick walls and posters of the happy Guatemalan coffee pickers and arm chairs you fall asleep in. Musique d’ameublement, as Satie would have said.

I asked my friend Yannos about these lists are put together. He would know. He was a guitarist and once had a midnight slot on a radio station where he mostly played post-rock music. But he lost his job when the station switched to playlists and ironically was now picking up some extra money putting together playlists for big department stores and other corporate clients. It was his list that Lena had heard that day at the supermarket.

I asked him why the store just didn’t buy Muzak. “More expensive. Besides, studies show people hate it.” He told me about the Pipedown site, a grassroots organization in London dedicated to stamping out music that’s piped music. “Music which no one’s asked to hear and which you can’t escape from. Apparently it was started by this guy who tried to get the London Tube authorities to stop the music at the Piccadilly Circus station. Like most musicians, he hated both playlists and piped in music.

“So do you get specs on what they want played?” I asked.

“Oh, they just give me the demographics and shopper profiles and tell me they want something that will appeal to the client, something upbeat and cool but not too noticeable. Nothing cheesy. No clichés . Nothing too pop. Or edgy, for that matter.”

“So what about the Sigur Rós?”

“I couldn’t help myself. It was all that was left of my show.”

-/-

Image: Art Ensemble of Chicago, Nice Guys album cover (ECM)

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