For four minutes it was a sequence of just four chords (V7C, VIB, II7B, VIB) repeated over and over again. And not just chords with a clear movement from one to the other, but electronically generated chords so that the sound was unwavering in its solidity as it oozed, like untreated faeces from a broken sewer, from innumerable hidden loudspeakers. It then seamlessly moved into a whole sequence of first inversion chords wafting around aimlessly, then a female voice wordlessly oohing and aahing above another basic chord sequence – studiously avoiding anything like a perfect cadence or even a root position tonic - and then back to the four chords again. All electronically created (even the female voice) with a kind of slowly revolving tremulant to create an impression of wafting in and out of focus, and occasionally superimposed with distant electronic birdsong effects. In short, it was a wall of unyielding, unpleasant and utterly aimless sound.
And the funny thing is, it is clearly intended to be “soothing”. You buy CDs of it at Garden Centres, presumably to create a mood in which your weeds can flourish and your slugs, aphids and caterpillars gorge to their hearts’ content. I always thought it was a bit silly and designed to attract the gullible weekend gardeners into believing that there is some truth in the notion that music helps plants grow, but - God help us – dim-witted hotel executives take it seriously.
Once, frustrated at the terrible inappropriateness of the music being played in a hotel in which I was staying, I was asked to suggest something more suitable. My recommendations were taken up and I built a small company around the desire of hotels, shopping malls and airlines to create a distinct atmosphere through music. Research was undertaken which showed that different music at different times of the day had different effects on the clientele (“Duh!”, I hear you say, “Tell me something new” – but honestly, a lot of hotels hadn’t thought that one out before) and we were able to help hotels both achieve their desired image and increase trade (people linger longer if the music is restful, people hurry on if it’s fast and loud). The company collapsed when the big boys of brand awareness stepped in.
Before moving to Singapore we always stayed at The Oriental, then one of the best hotels in the world. After a major makeover in the aftermath of the SARS epidemic, they re-branded themselves the Mandarin Oriental (to celebrate being part of a hotel chain rather than an individual establishment with its own unique character) and converted their Oriental Club into a kind of quasi-Eastern theme park with assorted artefacts from assorted South East Asian cultures, an oppressively dark wood (which resembled nothing more than black-stained Formica) covering all the walls, and a CD of “mood effects” playing on a loop throughout the day and night. The effect was amazing. You only had to set foot in the place and any happy or calm feelings instantly dissolved, to be replaced by a wave of dark depression and an immediate desire to commit suicide.
Constant complaints to the manager about the atmosphere were met with an apologetic stream of buzz words - “Corporate branding…Directive from Central Control…Designed by professionals to create a specific atmosphere”. It was the Mandarin Oriental theme, and woe-betide the manager who felt he knew better what suited his customers than a faceless figure in an anonymous office block. I pictured a pock-marked sexless youth, fresh from some insignificant pseudo-art school armed with a diploma in graphic design, sitting at its plastic desk bringing together a hotchpotch of half-baked visual concepts rounded off by a couple of CDs bought from its local garden centre with the magical words “Relaxation…Calming…Mystic” on the cover. It probably looked good on paper, which is what will have pleased the Mandarin Oriental Central Management, but, boy, did it destroy a once pleasant environment, transforming a friendly club into a hostile, cold and impersonal cavern in which you dared not look down to the floor in case, Lord of the Rings-like, you saw ghostly faces peering up at you as if from under the waters of the Marshes of the Dead.
Hotels have long opted out of thinking about music and have gone for trendy “atmosphere-creating” packages. Someone, somewhere in some corporate office, has decided what music every hotel in their chain plays, and blow the consequences; long live corporate identity; down with individuality and local taste. Some do get it right and, to be fair, the corporate sound-track from the Taj Vivanta which I have just left in Pune was quite acceptable. It did the job well. Others get it spectacularly wrong.
Last night I checked into the Gateway at Athwa Lines in Surat (also, a member of the Taj Group, but obviously lower down the pecking order) and have stumbled across the disaster to end all disasters of corporate music planning. The sound infuses every area of the hotel (even in my room I can hear it waft through the corridor outside like the unstoppable force of seeping tsunami) and creates a sheer wall of impenetrable ghastliness. Breakfast time was terrible. I think the food was OK, but I got so irritated by the incessant inananity of the music that my temper frayed and the staff suffered my wrath at every corner. The staff themselves are miserable and largely hostile under a forced veneer of helpfulness (prompted, one suspects, by the desire for a large tip), but I don’t believe that’s their character. They must have been indoctrinated by the horrors of the soundscape to which they are subjected every second of their working lives.
There is no escape. It never stops. It never relaxes. It never changes its volume. It is, in a word, terrible. And if this is a good hotel, I’ll never know it, for the CD they play (presumably called “Atmospheric and Relaxing Sound Experience - Vol.94) completely destroys any ability to comprehend anything beyond this horrific wall of electronic sound masquerading as mood music.
If you want to enjoy a brain-numbing experience then stay here. If, on the other hand, you want to find peace and relaxation, you’d do better booking into the dormitory at the Railway Station or taking a trishaw and dozing in the back while the driver takes you on a circuit of local traffic accident black spots.