A party can with advantage be regarded as wine. Thus we can apply the COSTA formula to it.
Colore Odore Sapore Tactu Auditu
Thus it has color, scent, taste, texture and sound. Let’s stay with the sound.
How does a party sound? In many ways, of course. It can be nervous and tensely silent, or exploding with spontaneous giggle and laughter, and everything in between.
But I don’t speak now about the soundscape of parties, which could be both interesting and boring, but about the soundtrack. The music.
It is of course perfectly permissible and normal to throw parties without any music at all. The aim of the party is perhaps to meet old friends and just converse, talk about new and old times, reconnect, recollect.
At other times we want to be more centrifugal and less focused. However, one can still focus the mood, so to say. And then music can help.
My parties usually have a soundtrack. If I am doing a salon I am probably playing piano myself, otherwise I leave the music to a CD-player.
However, I do not leave the choice of music to a machine, nor to chance. (Nor to a Spotify algorithm, I should add.)
I see two functions of music at parties, and I now mean more informal parties. One negative, defensive, and one positive, creative.
Silence is an aspect of music, I mean the break, the moment when nothing is played or sung.
But silence is in another way the opposite of music (sound), and considering that silence has a fearful and scary aspect, music can be a good antidote.
In plain words: Guests can feel tense in total silence. The same thing happens in a large restaurant with acoustics where each whisper is heard. Everybody can hear what everybody says: this is not a private feeling.
Of course sound and sound level depends on the number of guests; at really large parties nobody hears anything. But let us now imagine a moderately large party, say between 7 and 20 guests.
Especially in the beginning, and especially with smaller parties, I want to avoid that intimidating, tense feeling of white silent space. First impressions when the door is opened for the guests are important, so why not make it musical?
I usually have music on when my guests arrive. In that way a mood — hopefully welcoming and inviting – is already established.
This can also be seen as a statement — about the party, about you, the host, about your ambition with the party. I like the statement to be simply “You are welcome to my home, and I want to create a nice atmospheric evening for you”.
Another thing to consider is of course your guests. If they for some reason all hate jazz, don’t play jazz. However, if they are strangers to classical music I might still play some soft-core classical piece, maybe Debussy’s “L’Après-midi d’un faune”. Even if your guests are not actively listening to classical few people actually dislike it.
Classical could also be used in a preventive way, for sending the message “This is a civilized party. Here we don’t head-bang and throw up, unless we really can’t help it.”
You get the idea.
I try to choose music that it relatively calm and soft, nothing challenging or having too many horse-powers. Use common sense, but do not exclude subtle surprises. As Jean Cocteau said: “Tact is knowing how far to go too far.”
So far the preliminary, defensive side. Let’s now imagine that the party is already swinging.
No fear of silence any longer, we have reached cruising altitude. What now? Should I turn off the CD-player?
I could, but then the sound of the party would be just buzz, babble and murmur. I like to add some more harmonious sounds to that. (No longer trying to check silence and neutralize tenseness, now we are creating Party Mood.)
Again your character, the character of the party, and the guests, decide what music, if any, to play. There are a couple of styles I always, definitely avoid. I would never play techno or some such similar noise. (There are, unfortunately, kinds of music whose raison d’etre seems to be nothing else than to kill silence.)
And since I am an anachronistic person I like to play things with a nostalgic aura. “Retro” is another word, “lounge” a popular, more youthful one.
Even if my guests practically never listen to Frank Sinatra I dare say that most of them enjoy the sense of urbanity, class and sometime melancholy of songs like “The best is yet to come”, “That’s life” or “Here’s to the losers”.
So yes, I often play Sinatra and similar things. Maybe big bands of good quality: Count Basie, British Johnny Dankworth or Quincy Jones.
A record like Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable” works very well.
The aim is twofold. There is also here a “defensive” aspect, guarding against the soundscape being filled totally with just voices meeting, converging, laughing, shouting. If you listen actively to this sound, it is not very beautiful. Add a spoonful of Sinatra or Tony Bennet (just as good but less known) and the soundscape improves right away. It’s almost like clearing up an oil spill.
Summing up: Think about what message or statement you want to send, what mood you want to create, and how you want your guests to feel. Sometimes we want to excite people, sometimes calm them down. As long as we don’t make them snore, all is well.
PS: If you have tired of your guests you could always bring out your horn.
Food has always been a central part of festivities. Sometimes not so much, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else.
I now take for granted that you who read this are not only interested in food. Strictly speaking there is no need for a party to enjoy food. Just go to a restaurant, or prepare something delicious at home.
Let’s look at food as one of several party elements.
You might ask, what other elements are there? The following are classical.
The free circulation of guests. This can be called mingling, chatting, small talk, etc. The guests are free to do what they will (within boundaries permitted by the host).
A program of some sort. This can be games, charades, music or maybe reading. These are the classical salon elements (but of course one need not hold a salon in order to have a program).
More aspects can be listed but at the moment let’s only look at these three: Food, mingling, program.
A very important thing to consider is readiness.
After you have been chatting with some old or new friends, you are probably ready right away to listen to some singing, or to eat some food.
After having listened to some music or poetry reading — and after respectfully having let the angel that follows poetic energies to tiptoe through the room — you are right away ready for small talk, or food.
Symmetry, so far.
It’s different with food. After having eaten a meal, especially a somewhat (or very) heavy meal, you are NOT ready for other things. Small talk, yes. That happens all the time at dinner tables, although the level of conversation is certainly influenced (for better or worse) by food and not least drink.
So food and small talk, let’s call it mental circulation, can be legitimate bedfellows.
Food and program however have a problematic relationship.
Imagine that you have hardly finished the great dinner when your well-meaning host says: “And now, after this fantastic Tournedos à la Stockhausen and those stuffed birds à la Verdi we will listen to some… Verdi! Performed by our lovely soprano miss Dalila and her pianist Samson. Please, quite everybody, the music begins in softness…”
Excuse me!? You have hardly picked your teeth after that Epicurean treat, and you wanted to continue your conversation about atomic physics and lap-dancing with that fabulous new friend.. and now you are supposed to just shut up and get into an… operatic mood??
As I say, the host can be very well-meaning here, offering not just food for belly but also food for heart. So far, so good.
But there is an extra element to consider when it comes to food. After a meal we are NOT right away prepared to do something else, especially not concentrate.
Food and drink makes people relaxed, so don’t ask your guests to tense up and be “cultural” right after a meal. We are moving into centrifugal, not centripetal mode.
Before is just great, but not after. Leave some time for that element which moves slower with physical food than with music or chat: DIGESTION.
Digesting food takes time, and during that time other activities are going to compete with the belly. In that match, the belly usually wins. So don’t challenge it but give it time. Food and eating casts a shadow that must be taken into account.
I recall an relevant incident that demonstrating this. Systembolaget in Sweden was celebrating something at hip Café Opera and they had invited a truly star celebrity to entertain: Burt Bacharach. I wasn’t there but read in the paper the next day that Bacharach was angry. Why? Because he had come all the way from the States and people didn’t listen when he played and sang…
I think I know what happened. Imagine this huge place, this palace of mingling that Café Opera is. As people mingle they of course drink alcohol and eat peanuts (maybe snort something as well). And the more we mingle the more relaxed and free-wheeling we become, the less we want to be restricted.
Sure, it’s great to have Burt Bacharach on stage, but when we have started to mingle we are not going to be silent and just LISTEN. We were silent when we arrived and as to volume at Café Opera, the only way is UP.
The arrangers, I am sure, did the mistake of having Burt too late in the evening. In the beginning it would have been great, but later he had too much competition.
An example from my personal experience. I was invited by some cultured ladies to be part of a salon in Skåne. They had invited around 30 people, had a grand piano and I was supposed to give a small, light-hearted talk and play some high quality salon music. (The only kind I play)
When I arrived the ladies briefed me: First we will have a glass of wine, as a gesture of welcome. Then after a while the dinner, and then your program.
No way, I said. If I play after dinner 1) I will turn into an after-dinner entertainer, a strange dessert helping (or thwarting) the digestive processes and 2) since the concentration of the guests will be diminished by the “food shadow” they will not get much enjoyment out of the music and my somewhat thought-demanding little lecture.
So I will play and talk BEFORE dinner, not after.
The ladies understood the logic and changed the order of the evening. Thus a good time was had by all.
This epistle is only concerned with one aspect of parties, but an important, and early, one.
We all know that presents are almost always an aspect of parties. What shall we take with us to the host? Flowers, a bottle of wine or other spirit, a box of chocolate? If the center of the party (not necessarily the host) is having a birthday or some similar celebration, then of course we bring all kinds of presents.
This is nothing new and nothing strange.
But there is something new, and quite strange, in modern party life. It has to do with the invitation.
Let’s imagine that today is my birthday (which by a strange coincidence, it also happens to be!) Usually the invited guests bring some presents to me.
At times we frankly declare that we want no presents (this might be more common in connection with Christmas), at other times we ask for something special. We might even write a list, or even post it at Amazon. trying in this way to minimize randomness or disappointment.
Not much really to say about this either. But there is a first present to be considered, whether we are talking about birthday, Christmas, or any other kind of party (except the most informal, improvised ones).
That present is your — I am talking to you as guests here — reply to the invitation.
RSVP, often written in the invitations, stands for “Répondez s’il vous plaît”, which means please respond. Please answer the invitation and inform the host whether you are coming or not.
THAT is the first present.
You might well ask why that should be a present. For one thing, it shows whether you will be present at the party, or not .-)
But the more important reason for calling this the first present is because a reply to an invitation can no longer be taken for granted.
This is nothing novel, it has been like this for a long while now. I do not wish to bring up the question of upbringing, politeness etc.. Let’s just say that it has become very common not to respond to an invitation.
There are of course variations.
A) Some people don’t reply to the invite at all. B) Some reply on the day of the party. C) Some a day or two after. D) Some, when you contact them to inquire if they got the invitation, reply “Oh, I thought it was last week….?!?” Meaning either that they didn’t read the invitation properly, or that you yourself wrote the wrong date on the invitation. (Lesson: Proofread your own invitation!)
E) And some, when you meet them after the party give this reason for the non-response: Sorry, I discovered your invitation the day after the party, and then it was to late…
Too late for what?
Why didn’t they write us or phone us to say “Sorry, I discovered your invitation they day after the party…” Such a phone call or letter creates a very positive energy for both host and guest. One could say it is the opposite of NONCHALANCE.
Unfortunately nonchalance seems to be — I say seems, since I don’t have statistics about why people don’t answer party invitations — the main reason for this fault of omission. When this happens to me, and I am sorry to say, it has happened a number of times, I am in a quandary
What should I do? Phone the person up? (perhaps the best alternative). Be angry (does not accomplish much, if anything). Strike that person off the list of people I want to invite?
As the saying goes, it takes two to tango. But it also takes two parties to party.
The host has a number of tasks and responsibilities. The guest, fewer. But if you want to be a Good Guest (which I suggest that you aspire to be), then your first, and perhaps not so easy, task is to ANSWER THE INVITATION.
Of course you are free not to do that. But you might want to consider what signal you are sending to the person inviting you.
I can’t be bothered to answer your invitation
Your party is not important enough for me (which comes close to)
You are not important enough
I am a nonchalant and sloppy kind of person
If you DO want to send one of these messages (and frankly, there is a time for everything in life), then by all means do not reply to the invite.
But do not send it inadvertently. That would be a shame. I wouldn’t want to send any of these messages to somebody who invites me to a party.
Today let’s talk about place, space and placement.
The locale is of course important for all parties, not only the refined kind. I am aware that we have different resources. Some of us live in castles, others in grand apartments, still others in small, humble flats.
Some of us can choose where to hold our party, others have only one alternative.
Seen from a wider perspective the place for your party does not much matter — if other factors are satisfying. It is not of prime importance. However, even if all the other factors (guest list, the host (you), the program, etc.) are fantastic, the locale can still add a lot to the evening.
One cannot criticize natural resources, so to say; we live as we live. However, even a very humble flat can be “upgraded” for a party, prepared for festivities.
When I arrive to a party I may note that this is a very simple apartment, but also that the host is generous, has used his imagination well and really created a festive touch. He has made a lot out of almost nothing.
The other extreme is the grandiose flat, but you note that the host couldn’t care less. He thinks that “natural gifts” are enough, so why should he exert himself? Even though his flat is much more impressive than the simple flat, it strikes me as much less festive. The thought, the generosity (and all the resulting consequences) count much more than raw materials.
Irrespective of whether you hold the party at your own place or somewhere else, try to find that festive touch that feels extra-ordinary. Aim for a weekend, not weekday, tone, so that when the guests arrive they sense that this is no ordinary meeting but something different, a party apart.
There are lots of details that can raise the party’s electrical atmosphere. They are too many to recount, but let me speak somewhat about furniture and furnishing.
There are two main roads to take here: sitting or moving about.
Either you are inviting your guests to dinner, sitting at a more or less long table. Food will obviously be an important factor then.
But of course people don’t just sit and eat at a party, they also talk. I often find that even though the food is very good and well taken care of, the talk isn’t. Or I should say, the possibilities for stimulating conversation are not made the most of. Keep in mind that even when the food is only so-so, we well remember an evening with sparklingly stimulating conversation. Good talk counts more than grub (and is more rare).
But how do we create good talk? Not an easy thing. Let’s look at how to avoid creating poor talk, lame conversation, and things will immediately improve.
Let us count. How many people do we have immediate access to at a party where we sit down to eat?
Two to my left and right, and three in front of me. If we are going to sit and eat for perhaps several hours then these five individuals are going to be immensely important to me. Or immensely boring…. Which happens all to often.
If I would hold such a party — which I don’t, because I don’t believe in forcing people to sit in one place for hours — I would not let my guests choose where to sit. We gravitate towards that and those we already know, out of habit and sometimes out of fear (“What if I have nothing to say to those admittedly interesting looking strangers over there? No, I will stick to my old pals!”). Not a festive thing, especially not for those who don’t have any old pals to fall back on.
Consider that at larger parties (20 guests or more) there are usually always a couple of lost, “left-over” people who hardly don’t know anybody at all. And there are perhaps several groups of 2-5 people who know each other almost too well. (I call these groups clumps. They often create small sub-parties within the larger, actual party. More about clumps and sub-parties later.)
What happens to these 4-5 odd folks? They may be lucky and find each other immensely interesting. Then again, they may not. And the fact that others already know each other well can easily dampen their mood and joy.
I don’t want that to happen. Therefore I would compose A Well Thought Out List for the table seating.
Here is a great opportunity for you to let out, and cultivate, your inner matchmaker. Because matchmaking is what this is about. You should have the total guest list in front of you and lay a puzzle, see how you can find preferably five persons for each guest that are interesting TO them, and interested IN them.
That’s some challenge, and it will probably not succeed. But having aimed for the impossible, your party will be so much better than if you had thrown a dice and given the matter just ten paltry minutes.
This can also be a truly fun aspect of pre-party planning. Imagining how A, B, C, D and E will fit in with F trains your imagination and your “host muscles”, which are always concerned with the interaction of diverse human beings.
You might come up with groups that fit each other harmoniously, or adventurously, or bizarrely. That’s fine, we don’t need a totally homogenous whole, that could be boring, even slightly comatose.
An aspect of adventure lightens up the grey terrain of our sometimes dreary lives. Do not be afraid of it. Be more afraid of boredom and connecting people who make each other yawn.
Give time to this preparation; it might be more fun than the party itself! And of course be prepared to change things at the last minute, when your carefully thought out plans meet the reality of guests who cannot come or arrive late.
A good host always lands on his feet, not on his nose. And definitely not on the nose of another!
As I said, I wouldn’t throw this kind of party myself; I prefer to leave more room for my guests. Say that I have 20 people coming over. Even if I can be a perfect matchmaker and create perfect groups of five, I wouldn’t want a guest to be limited to only five people, plus sit the whole evening. Neither would most of my guests.
I believe in the charm and excitement and adventure of meeting new, exotic people, but this also entails leaving people. I might have a great little conversation or chat with someone at a party, but after a while I want more. There are other people that whet my curiosity. At a sitting dinner I would be chained to a chair, but at a more mobile party nothing (expect perhaps misguided “politeness”) stops me from excusing myself and moving on, to the next flower, and to the next.
If I have met and talked with perhaps 15 interesting people at a party, I call that a great evening! (I will probably write an entire epistle about mingling.)
Obviously all this is partly a question of furnishing. Every home can be furnished in different ways and nothing stops you from moving your furniture about. If you lack chairs you can borrow from a neighbor or friend.
As to food, instead of a dinner you could have a buffet. All the food on one table, so that the guests take their plates and help themselves.
This is in a double sense a wise move socially, because during this fetching food-stage one bumps into other people. Other people are in my opinion the very raison d’être of refined party life. And in my book “bumping” is a good thing. When you just sit and sit you don’t bump into no one; no fortunate coincidences, no Lady Luck. The moving about reinforces the adventurous, exciting aspect of the evening.
But of course we don’t want everybody to stand the whole night. I would place smaller tables here and there with perhaps 3-4 chairs around them. Not more.
This will create small islands, but not forts. You can quickly get in, but also get out (which is just as important). When boredom sets in, on you move! Don’t fall into the well of misdirected politeness.
I ask none of my guests to bear boredom; however, I often feel that that is asked of me at parties.
Just say no to boredom is my watchword.
So, create possibilities to rest, sit, eat, but also to move. Let’s be as mobile as our telephones.
A warning is in place here: watch out for the sofa-armchair-trap, the SAT. I call it trap because that’s what it is. The SAT consists of a sofa, usually a low table and a couple of chairs around it. Now imagine the dynamism of this formation.
When the first four guests arrive, guests with not strong enough hedonistic impulses (i.e. willing to give up enjoyment too easily), they sit down in the sofa. The low table kind of shuts them in.
More guests arrive and place themselves on the chairs around the sofa. The prison is set!
What happens in this situation? Here is a likely scenario:
Imagine that you are one of the people sitting in the sofa. With the added newcomers a kind of circle has been formed. Now a circle can be a really dangerous thing. It closes in, and it excludes out. It is hard to enter from outside (for newcomers), and it is hard to exit for those already in. Yes, that sounds like a prison.
You need a good excuse, a too good excuse to leave the sofa now. No excuse should be needed at all.
A circle seems to have a message of its own. It says: “Let’s keep this together folks. Let’s stick together, talk together, think together…”
What a sorry invitation to conformism… Even a half open circle can be bad.
All this CAN be great if we really do think together, but that happens seldom. Often this is just a low bow to the idol of Conformism. Vive la similarité.
A common variation is that 2-3 people (if we are lucky) talk about something that really interests them, while the others get the role of audience. They can of course be “polite” and try to fit into a conversation that, to be honest, bores them. Not good.
But it can be even worse. Those 2-3 people that we THOUGHT were talking about something that really interested them, might be “polite” as well, feigning interest without having it. Now that’s really bad!
Yes, we must admit it: its not always easy to “break the ice” and start a conversation. Often we take the road of least resistance and talk about something that we THINK interests everybody. But what “interests everybody” often interests nobody. And even if it does interest, going the way of least resistance creates the least pleasure — and the most boredom.
By placing that sofa there, that table there and those chairs there, you have almost created an invitation to boredom. Don’t do it.
Open up the whole thing. If you have a sofa, don’t shut it in with a table. Keep the chairs away from it. Create white space, freedom, breathing room. Let your guests be birds, let them fly and don’t fence them in.
As you understand this kind of moving, non-sitting arrangement is better suited for more artistic and even bohemian folks. Bohemians are often used to informal and aleatoric parties where everything just happens. I see a need for a higher bohemian octave. I have tried to describe some aspects of it here.
Much depends on the guest list, of course. We will discuss that important subject at length in another epistle.
It would be logical, and traditional, to start with semantic preliminaries, trying to define what a party is and create an intellectual foundation for what is to come.
Logical and BORING. But boredom is not something I want to connect with parties, so instead I will begin at the end. Before that, however, a VERY general division of the party domain (more nuances to come).
Parties can be IMPROVISED or COMPOSED, more spontaneous and aleatoric (random) or more controlled.
If you favor the spontaneous, improvised party there is not much I can contribute. Party on, throw the dice and see how it lands. These epistles are for those who want to go beyond informal, improvised partying. By the way, I call the aleatoric party hip-hap[hazard]. Itcan be great, or dull, but it is, literally, out of control (which is part of its attraction and charm).
Now let´s really start at the end.
Let us suppose that you are planning a party. How would you like it to end? Imagine that your guests have just left the scene of festivities, they are going home while discussing the evening. What would make you most happy, what would you like them to say about your party (while you were not listening)?
What a wonderful dinner we had!
I am so full that I cannot eat for a whole week…
Who was that crazy fellow in the yellow suit?!?
My, what interesting people! The conversation was really flying!
I could kill for those furniture, they must have cost a fortune…
Phew, I thought it would never end… How do I get on the Don´t invite me again-list?
… add your own alternative
Ponder this for a minute, because your answer, your dream scenario so to say, is an important piece of the party puzzle.
So, let us get our priorities straight. If you know how you want the party to end, you know how to begin and move forward. Let the end decide your direction.
§ If you want your guests to admire your expensive furniture, buy expensive furniture.
§ If you want them to marvel at the crazy fellow in the yellow suit, invite a crazy fellow in a yellow suit.
§ If you want them to admire your wizardry in the food department, that is to make their bellies happy, then fix a really nice dinner or buffet. (This is a classic goal and aim. Unfortunately, many parties only offer this kind of food. Mr Belly is happy but there is hardly any food for thought or food for heart.)
§ If you want your guests to be happy because your party is over, just be an awful and boring host. (In all honesty we must say that some guests are no saints either. Some actually deserve to be put on the Never invite again-list.)
I am sure I don´t have to give special advice for this alternative; just do things awkwardly. Of course if THIS is your goal, your motivation for throwing a party at all will remain a mystery to me.
§ If you want your guests to be happy because of all the interesting people they met and the great conversations they had, invite fascinating people who are great conversationalists and listeners.
This, by the way, is my personal goal. I cannot really prepare a stunning dinner, often I can´t afford it. You wouldn´t look twice at my furniture. However, I have a fascinating and intriguing circle of friends. This is what I have emphasized in my life, people. My party talent definitely lies in the area of human raw material, not in vegetables or interior design.
Besides, I am a matchmaker, quite proud of the fact that people have met at my party and then married. (That they later divorced was not my fault… I think.)
Knowing what we want, our priorities, strengths and weaknesses is one aspect of the refined party life. As Socrates might have said (he supposedly liked to party)
KNOWING OUR LIMITATIONS
You might answer that you want to make your guest happy with nice food but you cannot fix a great dinner. Or, you might want to invite your friends to a wonderfully witty evening. but you know too few people.
This can be disappointing of course, but at least you now know what you want, and what you have (or not). Your self-knowledge has grown.
From here — the important ending — we can reverse and crab-like go backwards to our practical preparations. We are wiser. We know what effect we are aiming for, what feelings we want to evoke in the hearts of our guests. We might not succeed 100 % — but hey! we will succeed even less if we don´t even know what we want!
Why be formal, you may ask. What´s wrong with improvised parties? Of course the informal hip-hap party is the easiest of them all to throw.
It need not cost a lot of money, preparation, or thought. Just invite people over and party. It might turn out to be great fun — or it might not, such is the nature of aleatoric parties.
However, by and large they are not challenging or interesting enough, if you ask this party composer. A bit like a McDonald´s meal. And our friends sure deserve to be treated better than prosaic fast food.
Partyology is concerned with somewhat less random festivities. About 47.3 % less.
Naturally we don´t have to settle for just one type of party, or only one kind of attraction. There´s nothing wrong with great conversation AND food AND furniture (a beautiful space can create a festive atmosphere the moment you enter it).
And probably we throw different kinds of parties at different times. Sometimes food is the focus, sometimes music, sometimes the company. And sometimes we party just because it’s Tuesday. Every excuse is legitimate.
When we have decided more specifically how our next party is going to be, we need to move on and make further decisions about
where exactly to hold the party
how many guests to invite
how important food and drink will be
if we want some kind of program (or, God forbid, theme)
how long into the night we want to party
All this comes later. For now we have taken care of the first important decision: how we want the party to end.