If on a Winter’s Night a Coffee Spoon

Having lived in New York for 5 months, I feel ashamed that I had never heard of Muji until just last week. Such was my ignorance (and perhaps my pervasive phobia of Midtown) that it took the visit of a friend from Chicago to rectify the situation. As you might have guessed, I’m a little highly strung, and Muji is an emporium seemingly devoted to dressing up the deepest, darkest, most OCD part of my being. It’s great. Though the Japanese retailer is known for offering “organizational” items, Muji didn’t strike me as a place designed for the neat freak, the obsessive type A, the trendy yuppie with a fetish for quasi-Scandinavian minimalism, or any other stereotype. At the same time, it’s not a store for slobs, or those who do not consider carefully the manner in which their lives operate around them at home. One could have any number of items form Muji and still have a messy office, a very artsy creative space, or any other unconventional organizational system.It seems niche, but in reality it’s not. How many of us are genuine total neat freaks, or total slobs? In the end I was completely charmed, as the products are not only cute, but also deceptively specific. Going to Muji is about the very act of wondering just how you might use “x” item, and how a little extra composure or structure might adorn your day-to-day life.


Single-pen holder – Indeed, instead of a pencil jar, you can buy a holder for just one pen, perhaps your favorite pen.

0.38 pens – I was skeptical that the difference between a 0.4 and a 0.3 pen could be so crucial, but having tried out these pens, I’m convinced that they are superior.

Mechanical pencil – Perhaps the best writing utensil I have ever encountered in my life. Need.

Single-toothbrush holder – Variations on a theme. This one perhaps seems more believable, as it could be a nice ornament for the single person, a means of protecting against cross contamination between you and your partner’s toothbrushes (though shoving your tongue in various human crevices is apparently fair game?) or just a way of keeping other bathroom chemicals from touching the rather wiry bristly instrument for which you pay to make your gums bleed. What is strange is that this item seems to be conceived for your standard toothbrush in mind, and not one of your fancier electric Oral-B-thinga-majigs. I myself don’t use an electric toothbrush, but somehow I feel that if my dental instrument were so precious to me that I were inclined to buy a single holder for it, surely the toothbrush itself would need to be of considerable value? As I am not a connoisseur of toothbrushes (although I do brush my teeth three times a day), maybe I am missing the point.

Aroma diffuser – Blowing a “mist” infused with essential oils in the air, it makes your room smell like a midtown massage parlor or your stylist’s corner at the salon (minus the fungicide and hairspray). Scents such as sweet orange, lavender and grapefruit are pleasant enough, but scents such as “sky” and “energy” aroused a pressing question: What the hell is the sky is supposed to smell like?

Travel size, vacuum-sealed ramen – I’m not quite sure why they are vacuum-sealed. Dried ramen noodles aren’t exactly known for their freshness. Maybe it’s to save space… but why would you need to take ramen in your suitcase? Maybe my friends who camp or climb can enlighten as to the necessity for space efficiency with their empty sodium and carbohydrates. I’m stumped.

Travel humidifier – This could be genuinely useful for me as a musician, as its convenient size means that should an instrument be misbehaving, one could rectify the climate predicament with relative ease for only $70. It should be noted that the travel humidifier looks uncannily like the aroma diffuser, except that it is slightly larger. I suspect I am not alone in such an observation, as on second inspection, the travel humidifier contains a warning stating that essential oils are not to be used, and the aroma diffuser bears a disclaimer that it does not serve any true humidifying function, despite the fact it blows water into the air.

Shrink-wrapped hair turban – For your Jackie-O cum Grey Gardens-themed sleepovers.

Portable reading glasses organizer – I would not need one of these immediately, as I tend to buy a pair of readers and just lose them in a few weeks. But for those who somehow need numerous pairs of brightly colored eyeglasses and often wear multiple pairs on top of their head to avoid ever, ever being without a pair, this could have rather pressing utility. Birthday present for mom: sorted.

Cuckoo clocks – Adorable, admittedly, but truly frivolous.

Miniature paper shredder – Yes please. I hate Christmas cards, memos and general pieces of paper smaller that A4/8.5×11 (especially hate receipts I can’t claim on my tax return).

Water bottle with infuser – Even if plants help keep your water fresh for a longer period of time, it’s simply not for me. It’s a nice idea, but are the herbs really so much of an obstruction that they have to be cordoned off before you pour?

Individual shrink-wrapped underwear – Not unheard of for women necessarily, but the stylish nature of these underwear (and significantly higher quality) compared to your local Walgreen’s granny panties make them somehow more appealing. I think this is another ploy by Muji, in that having such strange organizational items, really intended for the home and not the office (even if you work at home), they cater to some sort of desire for some light/minimal control over the most intimate areas of your life, like pen and toothbrush choices.

Key ring with attachable shoehorn – My friend L noted that it would surely have to be very small. But in looking in the clothing section at the 42nd Street Muji, I noted that none of the shrink-wrapped men’s socks exceeded an American size 10. Being a short American man of 5’6” with a size 9 shoe, being short never felt so good as being in a store dedicated little things, or indeed little people.

Spherical ice maker – I genuinely was a little annoyed when I saw this. On passing it a second time, I considered the novelty of a spherical ice cube and how it might occupy space in a circular beverage container more efficiently. They had two sizes, one of which was extremely large (hence my immediate perception of impracticability), and some smaller (though only sold in sets of 4). Indeed, there was something about them that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, so I continued to look at tea sets while frigid-Muji-esque thoughts ruminated through my noggin. But on a third encounter, my curiosity peaked as I considered the issue of surface area and the rate of melting (not dissimilar to my related concern with coffee grounds). Instead of speculating with my limited scientific knowledge, I turned to one of my all time favorite blogs on my iPhone to see if they could shed any light. Fantastic. Spherical ice, though not as cold as cubes, does not melt as quickly in your drink. I truly hate watery gin and tonics, and downing them for sake of preserving their essence is never pleasant.

Coffee spoon – Not to be confused with the teaspoon adjacent, the Muji coffee spoon is slightly smaller than the teaspoon and also costs $1.25 more. I would ordinarily be baffled by this, until I remember that I don’t really need spoons for my tea, as I don’t add anything to my tea, the few times I make it at home (read: almost never). Sugar in espresso is another matter, and having an appropriately small spoon is vital – just go to any coffee bar in Italy and you’ll find out why. So, hypothetically, I suppose I would indeed buy the coffee spoon, regardless of its price as I don’t necessarily have the teaspoon to compare it to. Is this perhaps another ploy of marketing individual items, whereby the separate nature of each and every item really makes you consider them in isolation. I know the coffee spoon and the teaspoon are placed next to one anther as they are both spoons, but when trying to think about how they would fit into my life as an avid coffee drinker and not a huge tea drinker, my possession of espresso glasses as opposed to a proper tea set, I am forced to concede that point of comparing the two renders a worrying false dichotomy, even though the utility of the smaller spoon for me would make the extra expenditure of one and a quarter dollars far more worthwhile. But that doesn’t stop the fact that this spoon is in fact smaller, lighter and less costly to produce. I’ve been duped, yet again.

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Muji sensory overload sets in and my mind starts to meander. Naturally, my mind drifts towards the recording of a Handel trio sonata playing overhead in the store. Indeed the tones of violin, flute and gentle continuo lend a certain sense of ease and elegance to surrounding, matching the meditative, quasi-Zen esthetic of moseying through Muji. As an early music dork, I naturally start to consider the phrasing, the amount of vibrato, ornamentation, pitch – all the really pedantic things that historical performance devotees put a tad too much thought into on some days. It’s at this point that a second item grabs my attention as I leave the section devoted to single-use kitchenware. A brilliant sign stating Muji’s purpose hung right above the display of cuckoo clocks. 

The photo seemed to sum up my observations on the trio sonata: while using modern instruments (rather than smaller more delicate historical instruments), the recording exhibited the extent to which historically informed techniques could indeed be incorporated into a performance to complement an existing interpretation. The players were using minimal to tasteful levels of vibrato (the violinist more so than the flutist, admittedly) evoking the more direct tone, “pure” qualities evoked by a period instrument. The use of a harpsichord was similarly a way of giving a slight nod to the past, though the manner in which it was played (though not unmusically), was not necessarily in line with current trends in the historical performance community (nit-picky matters of how to roll chords, articulate, sustain with your fingers, etc.). Indeed similar to Muji’s mission, there was a use of little or “exceptional” technique” to bring a certain essence of historicity to the performance, all while using modern craftsmanship. Shopping at Muji won’t make our home Japanese, just as adding an ornament here or there won’t transport you to Handel’s sitting room. But it does make things a little more interesting, and takes a little glance beyond for inspiration.

I’m aware the comparison can easily appear hyperbolic, but the simultaneous need for variety and symmetry can be pressing when we’re stressed. For instance, in my gap year, I lived in an apartment that was only furnished and decorated with items and adornments from IKEA (by my landlord, not me). It was a little infuriating. Sure, it was comfortable, and everything matched, but there was something extremely unsubtle to my dwelling. It was infuriating to the point where I felt I had to rearrange the furniture every few weeks to provide some semblance of inspiration, combatting the severity of the visual anemia confronting me every morning as I walked from my bedroom to the kitchen. The same concerns of emptiness confront me as a harpsichordist. Much time is spent thinking about the appropriate ways to decorate, ornament or bring some organization to a piece of music when the tone quality and similitude of my instrument brings new meaning to the word “monochromatic.” The processes of picking, choosing, rearranging, sacrificing, dressing up – these are obvious things we do in all aspects of our lives, and despite the reputation of historical performance as being a rather rigid practice of creating a time-warp, there’s a great deal of flexibility.

For instance, a pianist friend of mine remarked that he loves listening to Girolamo Frescobaldi, but when it comes to performing the music, he never really knows quite how to approach the score, bring it to life. Fortunately, my friend is not alone, nor would he have been alone when Frescobaldi’s music was published. In prefacing his music, Frescobaldi puts forward that has consciously created a “new style,” whereby the music on the page should only serve as a starting place for turning the harpsichord into an expressive, human machine. Though dense with a huge number of sixteenth notes (most of us would assume would need to be played quickly), we’re instructed to consider starting them slowly and letting pace and speed develop at our whim. Frescobaldi’s contemporary Monteverdi used to call this “sprezzatura,” a sort of negligence intended to promote a conscious, palpable nonchalance. We’re told to let not the affect of the piece, but our own emotions at the time guide elements of embellishment, such as extra notes and trills. Indeed it seems the only thing he tells us to leave out is “emptiness,” whereby any form of radio silence is discouraged. Even if we slow have to slow down to pause or consider, we should never the less continue. The instructions get even better. Should we become discontented with the piece, should it become too cumbersome, long, or uninteresting, the performer is allowed to take the various sections of the piece (usually around five) and change the order. No joke. We’re also told that the way the music is lined up on the page is pretty loose too. That which appears to align between the hands doesn’t have to be played exactly simultaneously. One hand can move freely ahead of another, should the there be a certain impetus either to take off or slam the brakes. It’s remarkable. We have a traditionally esoteric, stodgy composer the early 17th century, exerting an unknowable influence on the course of western art music by simply giving us a simple message: “relax.”

I say all this as if these are easy decisions to make, that the practice of music making is just that easy. Though not involving the heavy lifting of moving your faux-maple desk or bedframe around your apartment, the decisions can be arduous in their own way. Do I really want to move it again? Even if you accept that you could come back to it another day, when do I want to move it? Tomorrow? The day after? When I’m totally fed up? Or simply when the mood strikes me? Who has time for this? Before you know it, the first line of your first Frescobaldi toccata has taken you an hour just to learn the notes to, and another few hours to think about how you want it to sound today.

The performer’s plight is that of any reader of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, which I read just a few weeks ago. A standard in the repertoire for the American liberal arts student, it’s another item I felt I’d been missing out on for a long time. It’s my new favorite book. Toying with ideas on the essence and meaning of reading, the book’s charm is premised on the fact that that you yourself are the novel’s main character, unreliable narrator and protagonist. Finding an unfinished book in a shop, you realize that the great novel is incomplete, perhaps erroneously translated, the author is potentially a total hoax, or that the enterprise is a total conspiracy against you as a reader. You have the opportunity to put the book down at any number of places; there are ten points in which you think you’ve found the book you’ve been searching for, one of beauty and integrity, though totally inconsistent and irrelevant to that which you found before. But, you soon realize that your own obsession is what prevents you from actually sitting down and enjoying what turns any number of the ten different examples of exquisite prose contained in Calvino’s masterpiece. There’s no real sense that time is against you, except your own impatience.

Your impetuosity, neurosis and worry are reflected as you become entangled with two sisters on the same quest to find the novel in question. Ludmilla, your initial companion, at one point decides that she’s fine to settle with one of the novels you have discovered along the way and enjoy it on purely aesthetic grounds, seeing its beauty and ease as proof of its authenticity. Her sister, Lotaria, has other ideas. She believes she has found the proper novel when she quantitatively analyzes the number of occurrences of certain words in the book to determine its plot and substance. Both of their approaches are tempting, but you know that it’s only through your own experience that you can divine personal satisfaction.

I felt a familiar sense of unease in reading Calvino over the winter holiday period, that sensation of trying to figure out exactly what you’re attempting to get at and realizing that you’re still missing the point. It became uncomfortable as the act of reading this whimsical novel transported me to the harpsichord studio at Oberlin Conservatory, where an exasperated professor was doing everything in his power to just get me to take any direction that took my fancy, to let go, give up and let loose. It was overwhelming, as my sense of perfectionism was truly inhibitive to getting to essence of a truly beautiful and somewhat simple toccata. Discomfort soon set in as my professor could see the internal conflict, and metaphorical problem of the music in front of me. His advice on the pacing out and having some patience was no longer about Frescobaldi, but on my unnecessarily chaotic life. Probably one of the most important music lessons I’ve ever had as a student, my own rage at being confronted on my life by four pages of harpsichord music was the springboard for a personal project to figure out what I want from life. I still don’t know, but I’m willing to wait and find out.

That’s why Calvino and Frescobaldi both give the interpreter the enormous challenge of putting you in the cockpit. There is raw material, yes, but manner of digesting it is ultimately up to you. With Frescobaldi, pacing, ornamentation and embellishment excite your passions. It can all feel a tad stressful, as time is always pressing for the musician to decide for good how flexible the music should be. In life as well, deadlines upon deadlines keep us from looking at the sky, fixing our gaze on the pavement underneath our feet. This is why I like looking to other great thinkers and experimenters in the arts to remind me to look outside and take perspective. Like Frescobaldi, Calvino offers a brief preface to how to go about reading his book. He sets the scene, telling you not to worry about the TV, consider your surroundings, adjust your seat, confront your impatience, give into snacking – treat your reading experience with a certain light-hearted realism. It’s not so different from Frescobaldi if we chip away at trans-historical façade of severity and gravity.

For me now, playing Frescobaldi was like shopping at Muji. I can pick and choose and mix and match some highly odd and fetishized products at will, with minimal expense of time or money. The way I view the product, its necessity or aesthetic value can be flexible, and ought to be. I don’t have to reshape my interpretation of a toccata because of a minor detail in the score, but I can let it simply, fester, bloom, ferment, grow, be. The pacing of this scale, or the length of that ornament are at once of consequence in the moment and of inconsequence in retrospect, just as my small humidifier doesn’t need to run 24/7 (because it can’t!). It’s music that truly allows musicians to live in the moment, an extremely difficult task as the profession lends itself to self-involvement so easily. But Frescobaldi and Calvino share the wonderful ability to create art that continues to create. They remind us that in order to be creative, it’s ok to be realistic about the fact that humans like the little things to bring a simultaneous sense of contentment (Ludmilla) and order (Lotaria). We don’t have to have all of them, and certainly not all at once. They’re small and realistic enough to buy over time, incorporate now or later, forget about and rediscover. You can buy the individual penholder, but you can change the pen, where it is on your desk, how it fits into your life. It seems obvious, but the specificity of the product forces you to slow down and reconsider how it is that the smallest things in your surroundings can augment your comfort and ease, not just because of their existence, but because of their flexibility below the surface. But with each purchase or incorporation, there’s an active choice to both organize and make something in your life prettier and more imaginative. Given the choice, would you buy the teaspoon or the coffee spoon?



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