July 1, 2010
Uncharacteristically early for an appointment, I slowed my pace up Manhattan’s Lexington Avenue. Better early than late, I thought, but what on earth was I to do with myself for the next 30 minutes.
As I approached 86th St., the answer appeared almost by magic in the form of Papaya King, a hot dog stand on the corner. A dog and a drink would be the perfect way to while away the time. Others must have had the same idea. A long line of people snaked its way out of the place and into the street. No problem. I had time to kill and the day was balmy.
The line moved slowly, accompanied by the savory smell of hot dog, mustard, ketchup, and sauerkraut that hung tantalizingly in the air. Through the din of traffic noise and peoples’ voices, I thought I heard a few notes of music that faded in and out, but I paid no attention at first. Inside the stand, however, my ears perked up. Was that the sound of a violin?
With drink and hot dog in hand, I positioned myself as near as I could to the music that seemed to be coming from a loudspeaker in the ceiling. Now I could hear more than a single violin. A string quartet was playing. And, wait a minute! They were playing something familiar. When the customer standing next to me took a last swig of papaya drink and left, I was able to move directly under the speaker. With the next lull in noise, I recognized Franz Schubert’s Quartet Satz, the inspired first movement of a work Schubert inexplicably never completed. The ominous sounding opening had already taken place and morphed into the long, soaring first violin melody that followed. It was maddening to have sirens and horns drown out the music but when the noise let up for a few seconds. I could hear that the quartet was excellent and that the first violinist was shaping the melody artfully. Our Guarneri Quartet had recorded the Satz. Could it be that I was listening to myself? The violinist turned a phrase in a lovely but unexpected way. I wouldn’t have done it that way. Or would I? We had recorded the work so many years ago. People change over time, don’t they? Perhaps it actually was me.
I looked up at the crowd of customers packed into Papaya King and suddenly felt foolish. What was I thinking? Not a single person was paying any attention to Schubert’s glorious music or to who might be playing it. No one even seemed aware that music of any kind was accompanying the frankfurter extravaganza.
I was reminded of the Papaya King incident weeks later and several thousand miles away. The cellist David Finckel and the pianist Wu Han invited me, together with several other musicians, to perform and teach in their Taiwan chamber music seminar. During the day we worked, but almost all nights were relegated to spectacular food and lively conversation. At one point, we must have settled on a subject painful to all musicians who have recorded. After spending a lifetime perfecting our craft and hours in the recording studio laboriously shaping a work to our liking, the finished product more often than not ends up as background music for dining, paying the bills, or feeding the dog. I have heard on the radio, in restaurants, at dinner parties, at offices, and in elevators, the likes of Billie Holiday, Jascha Heifetz, the Beatles, the Budapest String Quartet, Cole Porter, Stuff Smith, Radio Lab, and Arthur Schnabel served up as musical wallpaper. What must they all have thought being toppled from their lofty pedestals as artists and reduced to mere mood-levelers. “But that’s what Mozart and Beethoven endured,” I hear you saying. “Their sublime divertimentos were originally used as just that—diversions, 18th-century background music for the nobility.” Wolfgang, Ludwig. I feel your pain.
Most people are only vaguely or even not-at-all aware of background music, but musicians for good or bad invariably hear the real thing. We can’t help it. It’s our profession, our world. I have heard rock and roll with sushi, new age music with flounder, late Beethoven quartets with soft-shell crab, and Frank Sinatra with beef Bourguignon. Once, friends put on a recording of Brahms’ Double Violin and Cello Concerto to accompany their dinner party. What did we eat? What were we talking about? I cannot remember. The violinist and cellist were playing with such uncommon beauty, such lustrous tone and elegance, that I could think of nothing else. I left the party, too shy to ask who the soloists were, but I kept thinking about them. A year later, our friends invited us to dinner once again. This time, I made them look through their entire record collection until they found the Brahms. (Zino Francescatti was the violinist, Pierre Fournier, the cellist.)
So I told my little Papaya King story to my colleagues as we finished a wonderful meal in a Taipei dumpling restaurant. I thought they’d be amused. “Wait a minute,” chimed in cellist David Finckel and violinist Philip Setzer of the Emerson String Quartet almost at once. “It could have been our recording of Schubert’s Quartet Satz.” “And it could have been mine as well,” added violinist Ani Kavafian. “I was in a quartet that also recorded the Schubert years ago.” We all looked at one another and burst out laughing. Here were members of three different string quartets vying for the honor of being wallpaper music.
I’ve been to Papaya King a couple of times since then. Classical music is always playing and as I’ve discovered, always from the same local radio station. A friend told me that as long as I pinpoint the date on which I heard Schubert’s Quartet Satz, I could go on line and find out who was playing. But what if it wasn’t the Guarneri String Quartet?
Sign up to receive new stories straight to your inbox!