Annoyed by Restaurant Playlists, a Master Musician Made His Own
How Ryuichi Sakamoto assembled the soundtrack for Kajitsu, in Murray Hill, and what it says about the sounds we hear (or should) while we eat.
July 23, 2018
The prolific musician and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto at Kajitsu, a Manhattan restaurant where he created the music playlist.Nathan Bajar for The New York Times
Last fall a friend told me a story about Ryuichi Sakamoto, the renowned musician and composer who lives in the West Village. Mr. Sakamoto, it seems, so likes a particular Japanese restaurant in Murray Hill, and visits it so often, that he finally had to be straight with the chef: He could not bear the music it played for its patrons.
The issue was not so much that the music was loud, but that it was thoughtless. Mr. Sakamoto suggested that he could take over the job of choosing it, without pay, if only so he could feel more comfortable eating there. The chef agreed, and so Mr. Sakamoto started making playlists for the restaurant, none of which include any of his own music. Few people knew about this, because Mr. Sakamoto has no particulardesire to publicize it.
It took me a few weeks to appreciate how radical the story was, if indeed it was true. I consider thoughtless music in restaurants a problem that has gotten worse over the years, even since the advent of the music-streaming services, which — you’d think — should have made it better.
If I’m going to spend decent money on a meal, I don’t want the reservation-taker, the dishwasher or someone from the back office to be cooking it; I want someone who is very good at cooking food to do it. The same should apply to the music, which after all will be playing before, during and after the eating.
I would prefer that music not seem an afterthought, or the result of algorithmic computation. I want it chosen by a person who knows music up and down and sideways: its context, its dynamism and its historical and aural clichés. Such a person can at least accomplish the minimum, which is to signal to the customer that attention is being paid, in a generous, original, specific and small-ego way.
In February, I went to Mr. Sakamoto’s favorite restaurant, on 39th Street near Lexington Avenue, with my younger son. It is a split-level operation: On the second floor is Kajitsu, which follows the Zen, vegan principles of Shojin cuisine, and on the ground floor is Kokage, a more casual operation that incorporates meat and fish into the same idea. (A Japanese tea shop, Ippodo, occupies a counter toward the front of the street-level space.)
As soon as we sat down, the music pinned our attention. It came from an unpretentious source — a single, wide speaker sitting on a riser about a foot off the floor, hidden behind a serving table. (We were downstairs in Kokage, but the same music was playing upstairs in Kajitsu.) I asked a waiter if the playlist was Mr. Sakamoto’s. She said yes.
Mr. Sakamoto, 66, is exemplary perhaps not only for his music but also for his listening, and his understanding of how music can be used and shared. He is a hero of cosmopolitan musical curiosity, an early technological adopter in extremis, and a kind of supercollaborator. Since the late 1970s, when he was a founding member of the electronic-pop trio Yellow Magic Orchestra, he has composed and produced music for dance floors, concert halls, films, video games, cellphone ringtones, and acts of ecological awareness and political resistance. (Much of this is detailed in “Coda,” Stephen Nomura Schible’s recently released film documentary about him.)
Some of what we heard at Kokage sounded like what Mr. Sakamoto would logically be interested in. There was slow or spacious solo-piano music from various indistinct traditions; a few melodies that might have been film-soundtrack themes; a bit of improvisation. Where there was singing, it was generally not in English. I recognized a track from Wayne Shorter’s record “Native Dancer,” with Milton Nascimento, and a pianist who sounded like Mary Lou Williams, although I couldn’t be sure. This wasn’t particularly brand-establishing music, or the kind that makes you want to spend money; it represented a devoted customer’s deep knowledge, sensitivity and idiosyncrasies. I felt generally stumped and sensitively attended to. I felt ecstatic.
He is not in the habit of complaining when he has a problem with music in public spaces, because it happens so often.
I found out that Mr. Sakamoto had enlisted Ryu Takahashi, a New York music producer, manager and curator, to help him with the playlist. My son and I met them both, as well as Norika Sora, Mr. Sakamoto’s wife and manager, on a bright spring afternoon between services at Kajitsu, where the tobacco-earth smell of Iribancha tea permeated the dining room. Mr. Sakamoto was dressed in black down to his sneakers.
I asked if the story I’d heard was true. It was, he said. I asked if it would bother him if people knew. “It’s O.K.,” he said. “We don’t have to hide.”
He is not in the habit of complaining when he has a problem with music in public spaces, because it happens so often. “Normally I just leave,” he said. “I cannot bear it. But this restaurant is really something I like, and I respect their chef, Odo.” (Hiroki Odo was Kajitsu’s third chef, and worked there for five years, until March. Mr. Odo told me the music had been chosen by the restaurant’s management in Japan.)
“I found their BGM so bad, so bad,” Mr. Sakamoto said, using the industry term for background music. (“BGM” was also the title of a Yellow Magic Orchestra record from 1981.) He sucked his teeth. “Really bad.” What was it? “It was a mixture of terrible Brazilian pop music and some old American folk music,” he said, “and some jazz, like Miles Davis.”
Some of those things, individually, may be very good, I suggested.
“If they have context, maybe,” he replied. “But at least the Brazilian pop was so bad. I know Brazilian music. I have worked with Brazilians many times. This was so bad. I couldn’t stay, one afternoon. So I left.”
He went home and composed an email to Mr. Odo. “I love your food, I respect you and I love this restaurant, but I hate the music,” he remembered writing. “Who chose this? Whose decision of mixing this terrible roundup? Let me do it. Because your food is as good as the beauty of Katsura Rikyu.” (He meant the thousand-year-old palatial villa in Kyoto, built to some degree on the aesthetic principles of imperfections and natural circumstances known as wabi-sabi.) “But the music in your restaurant is like Trump Tower.”
Mr. Sakamoto's soundtrack plays in Kokage and upstairs at Kajitsu, above. “The color of the wall, the texture of the furniture, the setting of the room, wasn’t good for enjoying music with darker tones,” said Norika Sora, Mr. Sakamoto’s manager and wife.Nathan Bajar for The New York Times
A bad musical experience in a restaurant these days may be a kind of imitation of a thoughtful one, or at least a sufficient one: a good-enough one. It can be the result of the algorithmic programming from, say, a Pandora or Spotify station. It can be one of the many playlists made by human curators at one of those streaming services, meant for broad appeal. Or it can be the result of the safe or self-absorbed choices from someone in the restaurant. As with restaurant food, so with restaurant music: Good-enough isn’t good enough.
Some feeling of lift or transcendence is essential.
I asked a few restaurateurs how they get beyond the good-enough in creating or controlling their own playlists. Gerardo Gonzalez, the chef at Lalito, in Chinatown, spoke of first encounters and parting impressions. He contends that music is the first and strongest sensory indicator of what a restaurant is about; he wants his customers to leave in a better mood than that in which they entered.
Well-known tracks, he suggested, can be useful. But some feeling of lift or transcendence is essential. (He cited the jazz-harp music of Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby as examples of music that does not go wrong.) Also, a great playlist for your customers is not equal to the music you listen to for own purposes. “I draw the line,” he specified, “at something I might listen to at home, which might be bleak and dystopic.”
Brooks Headley, the chef of Superiority Burger in the East Village, and a musician himself — he has played drums in punk bands since the early ’90s — sent an iPod around to some discerning friends so they could load it up with their suggestions. “Nothing too moody or serious,” he cautioned them. They took his request seriously, and he likes not knowing everything that plays. (A hit in his restaurant: the album “Rock and Rollin’ With Fats Domino,” played in its entirety, all 29 minutes.)
Frank Falcinelli, a chef and partner at Prime Meats and the Frankies restaurants in New York, dreads restaurant-music clichés, and has developed ways to avoid them: playing original versions of songs made much more famous by covers, or playing deep cuts from well-known popular records. For instance: “Moonlight Mile,” from the Rolling Stones album “Sticky Fingers,” but not “Brown Sugar.” (Please, not “Brown Sugar.”)
Siobhan Lowe, manager of the restaurant (Reynard) and bar (The Ides) in the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn, hired the sound-design firm Gray V to make its varied and frequently updated playlists. She will give instructions — “make a playlist for a rainy afternoon in the Ides that would not freak out my dad but that music nerds will be impressed by” — and then lets the experts do their work. Like Mr. Falcinelli, she has seen the seductive power of the deep cut over her customers: Her example was a live version of Talking Heads’s “The Big Country.”
I asked Mr. Sakamoto whether the exercise of creating a restaurant playlist was as simple as choosing music he liked. “No,” he said. “In the beginning, I wanted to have a collection of ambient music — not Brian Eno, but more recent.” He came to the restaurant and listened carefully as he ate. He and his wife agreed that the music was much too dark in mood.
“The light is pretty bright here,” Ms. Sora said. “The color of the wall, the texture of the furniture, the setting of the room, wasn’t good for enjoying music with darker tones, to end your night. I think it depends not just on the food or the hour of the day, but the atmosphere, the color, the decoration.”
Fine details at Kajitsu: a cup of tea.Nathan Bajar for The New York TimesA splash of cherry blossoms.Nathan Bajar for The New York Times
Mr. Takahashi reckoned that he and Mr. Sakamoto made at least five drafts before settling on the current version of the Kajitsu playlist. Some songs were too this or too that — too loud, too bright, too “jazzy.”
“Playing jazz in restaurants is too stereotypical,” Mr. Sakamoto said. Jazz pianists are a particularly vexed issue for him. You will hear Mary Lou Williams, but not (at this point, anyway) Duke Ellington. You will hear Bill Evans, but not his famous “Waltz for Debby.” You will hear solo Jason Moran and Thelonious Monk.
One of the solo-piano songs that slayed me turned out to be the first movement of John Cage’s serene “Four Walls,” played by Aki Takahashi. (“It’s so pop,” Mr. Sakamoto marveled. “It’s like a radio hit.”) Another was Gavin Bryars’s “My First Homage.” A few others that moved me, piano or not: David Shire’s “Graysmith’s Theme,” from the score to the film “Zodiac”; Roberto Musci’s “Claudia, Wilhelm R and Me.” All of this music stood at a particular angle with regard to the listener: It was riveting, moderate and unobtrusive.
Mr. Sakamoto objects to loud restaurant music.
It was also not very loud, and here we arrive at an issue that may concern older customers more than younger ones. Mr. Sakamoto objects to loud restaurant music, and often uses a decibel meter on his phone to measure the volume of the sound around him.
He has composed original music for public spaces before, he said — a scientific museum and an advertising-agency building in Tokyo. He used light and wind sensors to change the music during the day. But the only experience he has had making playlists of the music of others, for other people, has been for family members.
He made one for his son, when he was learning to play the bass guitar; Mr. Sakamoto carefully excluded the bassist Jaco Pastorius, for reasons of personal taste, but his son found out about Mr. Pastorius a week later and scolded his father for the omission. Mr. Sakamoto made one for his father, during a hospital illness. And he made one for his mother’s funeral.
Was that, I asked, a collection of music she liked? Mr. Sakamoto paused and laughed and shook his head. “It was, kind of, my ego,” he said.
Mr. Sakamoto and Mr. Takahashi plan to change their playlist with each new season. Mr. Odo’s next venture, a bar named Hall and a restaurant named Odo, is scheduled to open in the Flatiron district in the fall. Mr. Sakamoto, again, has been retained as chief playlister.
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