The Music Of Places

This article originally appeared at

GARY LEFF, author of the popular travel blog “View from the Wing”, recently posted “How The Jesus and Mary Chain Influence My Hotel Choices” – his take on why some hotels create a deeper emotional response in us than others. ((I’m a big fan of Gary’s blog and any item whose title so felicitously combines “travel” and  “80’s music” references engenders an almost irresistible, Pavlov-quick click-through from me.))

He looked at two which are among my own sentimental favorites: The Park Hyatt Tokyo and the Fairmont San Francisco. I’ve noticed that, even though the staff of great hotels like these may change over the years, an essence endures. People can identify it and, often times, identify with it. Something more than just institutional memory, it seems like what the Romans called the genius loci — the spirit of a place.

Hotels, stadiums, stores, neighborhoods, cities, even whole countries can have it. The spirit of certain places — and the people we meet there — captures our attention. It can stir our imaginations. It can make us feel a sense of belonging. After a time, you begin to feel that you know it in the comfortable, familiar way that you know an old friend.

Finding these places is why I love getting on airplanes.

Great Hotels Aren’t Just Built — They’re Performed

Gary’s post caught my attention because it made me realize that, relatively speaking, so many words seem to be devoted to discussing the mechanics of how people travel and so few to the effects the places we’ve stayed have had upon us. This is perfectly understandable: Feelings are subjective and, when comparing notes about something like a hotel, it often seems safer to stick to the externalities — things like the size of the room and the price we paid for it — than to talk about what it felt like to be there.

But is it really so odd to think that people can have remarkably similar emotional responses to a place like a hotel? No more than it is for two people to love the same film or album, I think. Much like music or movies, hotels are performances — and people talk about those all the time. When Gary described the Park Hyatt Tokyo as “grand and somehow both friendly and impersonal”, I smiled. I knew exactly what he meant because I, too, have seen “The Park Hyatt Show”.

Any inspired performance feels like it was just waiting for you to come along and discover it. If the Park Hyatt Tokyo makes you feel like you’re watching, say, a jazz musician who kept his swank cool intact over the years, then many small hotels and inns feel like you’re listening to an intimate acoustic show.

I think that, if you’re listening for it, you’ll find that most places have at least a little bit of music within them. Rhythms. Tones. A Vibe.

A Sound.

A Human Habitat

Does seeing a place depicted in a story affect our own experience of a place? It’s hard to be sure. Many people wonder if “Lost In Translation” gave the Park Hyatt Tokyo its unique feeling to them. Sofia Coppola, someone whom I’ve read has spent a fair amount of time in hotels, probably recognized that it was the perfect habitat for her characters and so she used it as a tool to tell her story — in the same way she used that great music by Jesus and Mary Chain and Kevin Shields / My Bloody Valentine. ((I really enjoy how she uses interstitial locations like hotels to evoke a feeling of placelessness in her films. Check out “Somewhere” , a film where she uses both the Chateau Marmont and the Presidential Suite of The Principe di Savoia hotel in Milan to see for yourself.))

Gary’s other example, the dated-but-stately Fairmont San Francisco, was used as a backdrop for the characters on the TV show “Hotel”. Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film Hard Eight is set in the Peppermill Casino in Reno — which was, at that time, a superb location for giving a “Film Noir” feeling to a story about four desperate, desert drifters. Graham Greene wrote most of the first draft to “The Quiet American” while staying at the Majestic Hotel in downtown Saigon, populating the story with the people and places he saw along Rue Catinat. It’s now called Dong Khoi Street but, almost sixty years on, you can walk around and still see much of what Greene wrote about.

A Backdrop For Memory

Hotels are also environments designed to attract certain types of people and, because we’ve chosen them, they can also tell us something about how we see ourselves. In a hotel that feels “special” to us, I think that the details of how they practice hospitality feel truly artful to us because they reinforce the way we wish to be seen. Interestingly enough, when you find a place that does this, all of these details begin to recede into the background, silently serving to set a mood and to create a backdrop for your memories.

I can remember what our room at the Fairmont looked like, but that’s not why I have a special place in my heart for it. It’s because, when I was traveling with my dad as a boy, I’d get to go up to the Crown Room with him and drink ginger-ales while looking out over the San Francisco Bay. It’s from all that time I spent wandering around the lobby, watching people come and go. It’s from sneaking into the ornate-but-faded ballrooms when no one was around and, probably most of all, from discovering the wondrous Tonga Room.

I remember lots of things about the Park Hyatt Tokyo: I remember the greeting at the front door. The way that the room made you feel like you were in a floating cocoon above the city. I remember Mattheos Georgiou, the Assistant Manager, taking time to talk with us about his favorite places in Dubai. I can still remember what it felt like to unwind with a glass of Scotch in the New York Grill after a long day of exploring Tokyo. ((FYI: “Suntory Time” at the New York Grill isn’t cheap!))

Travel is different for everyone, but the joy of experiencing ourselves in a completely different context is part of what gives travel its romance. That feeling of romance is, for many of us, what gives our memories a deeper emotional resonance.

Maybe that’s why, among all the things that I can remember about the Park Hyatt Tokyo, one stands out above the others: I can remember sitting in that quiet, warmly lit room late at night, unable to sleep from the excitement of finally being in a place that I had always wanted to visit. I remember seeing my sleeping wife’s silhouette set against a backdrop of Tokyo’s softly blinking city lights.

And I remember feeling lucky, even if for only a moment in time, to be a part of all of this.

One Response to “The Music Of Places”

  1. Jerry Smith October 9, 2011 at 3:00 am #

    Very interesting post. I already read the blog of Gary!