Real Presence: On (Being) Musical Wallpaper

Why bother with live music, with ‘musical wallpaper?’

Why bother with live music, with ‘musical wallpaper?’

When I walked through the door, Agape Latte was already in full swing. There’s something formulaic about each of these monthly events: a coffeehouse feel, live music as people gather, free caffeine and sugar, trivia, t-shirt giveaways and a brief talk by a faculty or staff member, followed by questions. “Espresso your faith,” reads the tagline. It’s clever, if corny. And yet, unlike almost all other programming on campus, these gatherings are well-attended.  Packed, even.

As I entered the room I saw Mike, a student I know from around campus, off in the corner. Mike is a ‘campus celeb’ around here, a good guy known for his original compositions and his frequent appearances with his band, Black Agnes. Their latest album was written and recorded as part of a summer research project (isn’t a liberal arts education great?). Mike was the live entertainment for the night and was busy strumming his guitar. I was happy to see him there.

But the room was loud.  As one hundred or more students gathered in the space, picked up cookies and coffee and settled into their chairs, his music could barely be heard above the din of friendly chatter, wild laughter and ambient excitement. Still, Mike played on, his eyes closed at times, his earnest lyrics sneaking through the lulls in conversation. I wondered how it feels to play when it seems like no one is listening. I wondered enough to ask him about it later that week.  Here’s what he told me in an email:

The performances that pay the bills are rarely glamorous. I’ve spent many long summer nights belting Stones songs to a half empty bar as a few patrons watch baseball on the big screen. It can be draining.

I asked my guitar teacher about this very thing recently, a veteran guitarist and regular performer. He told me that he, too, often feels like musical wallpaper. Yet, he explained, for the people in the crowd, it really does matter that live music is happening. “Look carefully,” he said, “and you’ll see people tapping their feet under the table. If the music stopped, everyone would look up. Remember, even if they don’t clap after every song, your presence is making their experience better.”

At first glance, his participation in this monthly gathering seemed immaterial: the coffee will still be poured and drank, the speaker will still speak, the questions will be asked and (hopefully) answered. Why bother with live music, with ‘musical wallpaper?’ Why fill an already busy, noisy space with more noise? As an artist, why accept this gig if all you are is an extra, a background, an unnecessary addition?  Why bother?

Mike’s insight (or that of his teacher) is helpful here: Mike didn’t offer extra noise. He offered himself, his time, talent and presence. The gift of himself and his music weren’t immaterial but complementary, buttressing the conversation and laughter, contributing to the excitement of those gathered. His offerings weren’t just a mindless repetitive vamp, underscoring a minor character in a poorly orchestrated musical. No, what he offered was a distinctive part of the cacophony. Mike played a particular part in the whole experience of that night, in that particular space, with those particular people. As such, it was a gathering that can never be duplicated, no matter how formulaic the event remains from month to month.

And Mike seemed to have experienced the truth of his contribution:

At Agape Latte I decided to give my teacher’s advice a try; I disregarded my instincts and chose not to see the chatter as a negative review of my performance. I didn’t get anxious, feeling I needed to ‘get the crowd back.’ Rather, I settled in and made music for anyone who happened to be listening. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed it: in the space between conversations, as they took sips of coffee, some actually were.

Set against what I considered the ‘main event,’ the background elements of his music and his presence were entirely necessary. More than necessary: his presence was a gift. Without Mike, Agape Latte would have been a different thing, altogether. Between sips of coffee, the offer of himself and the gifts and talents that his presence implied, helped to turn a roomful of his toe-tapping, chatty peers into a unified community, enriching the experience of all.

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The cover image, courtesy of Michael Dunbar, is from his musical traveling blog which can be found here.

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