Tag Archives: Brian Eno

Sounding out the best music to work to

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

Blame the iPod. The ubiquity of that little device in the mid-2000s changed the working lives of many of my generation.

That, and the noisy open-plan offices we worked in. Steve Jobs’ little white box provided a perfect way to drown out background noise, focus on the task at hand, increase focus and productivity.

Didn’t it?

Perhaps it did, for some. As a working journalist in those years, listening to music wasn’t an option. The time you spent after phoning and meeting contacts was used to write, usually against a deadline. Fidgeting for the new Coldplay song five minutes before your copy was due was not advisable.

Outside the office it was different matter. At home I’d write and read to a constant soundtrack, and still do. Over the years I found some recordings worked better than others when it came to cognitive function.

For months I read at night to Aphex Twin’s “Selected Ambient Works Volume II”. But when I tried to do the same with John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” it was a no-go. I’d barely last five minutes. Beethoven’s sonatas? No problem. Bob Dylan? Not a chance.

After years of hit-and-miss listening I recently investigated what works and what doesn’t.

With the help of a couple of articles, from Inc and Time, I’ve narrowed it down – for myself at least.

Here’s the secret:

  • Listen to music without lyrics (no Dylan, more Beethoven)
  • Don’t listen to new music
  • Don’t listen if you’re trying to learn something new (the line between this and reading for pleasure is blurred, I find)
  • If you’re learning something new, listen before you start
  • If the task at hand is repetitive, listen to music (even if you’re a surgeon)
  • If there’s a lot of background noise, music you’re familiar with will calm your brain, improving focus

A case in point: as I write this I am listening to Caribou’s album Swim. It’s a recording I know pretty well, with songs whose lyrics are simple, few and repetitive. Hearing the music raises my levels of feel-good neurotransmitters (dopamine and serotonin), which relaxes me and helps me focus. My thought process is smooth and my output is consistent.

As a test I’ve now switched it out for one of my favorite non-cognitive tracks, music I use during workouts but not elsewhere – Slayer’s Raining Blood. My foot’s tapping but my concentration’s shot.

My perfect music while working is somewhere between these two poles – Brian Eno’s Discreet Music or Dustin O’Halloran’s Lumiere are two albums that spring to mind.

Of course there’s a simpler way to improve your working focus, your reading and your writing: work in complete silence and listen to nothing. Modern life renders the first impossible and, frankly, where’s the fun in the second?

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Listening between the lines – books and music

Reading at Big Sur, 2011 Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Reading at Big Sur, 2011
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words

So said Victor Hugo, whose 1,400-page tomes suggest he might have had an easier career as a songwriter than a novelist.

But are the two forms mutually exclusive? Or, to look at it from the perspective of the sofa, what’s the best music to read to?

None? Something unobtrusive? A solo piano recording or an ambient soundscape? Or something louder or noisier, a barrier to block the outside world?

The thought occurred to me as I read an article this week which – very specifically – paired books with albums (The Pet Shop Boys and Stephen King’s It being one of odder suggestions).

Over the years I’ve seesawed on the issue. While certain reading environments demand music (a packed-to-capacity long-haul flight, for example), others benefit from silence. Blasting Aphex Twin while reading in a pacific yurt in Big Sur a few years back, for instance, would have been a no-no.

Certain books still bring to mind certain albums of course. When I worked newsroom night shifts in the early 2000s I’d return home at 4 or 5am to pick up Don DeLillo’s weighty Underworld; Sigur Ros’ Ágætis byrjun was the soundtrack of the few weeks it took me to dig through it.

Likewise, Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II provided the soundtrack to Michael Smith’s account of Tom Crean’s famed trans-Antartic journey.

The scientific jury’s out on whether either of these albums helped or hindered my comprehension of nuclear dread or icy heroism. It appears that lower-information load music aids cognitive tasks, while recordings with more going on – particularly those with lyrics – hinder them.

This may explain why I find Brian Eno a better reading companion than, for example, Sonny Rollins. That said, I can read anytime to Bach’s Cello Suites – which are hardly low-information compositions.

In recent years, perhaps due to daily digital overload, I’ve cut music accompaniment altogether. Now I read to the sound of the refrigerator, kids playing outside or low-flying aircraft.

That said, the research above has found that listening to music before you read can increase cognitive processing.

Mind you, this also risks a tumble down a streaming site wormhole, as you waste hours compiling exhaustive lists of John Lewis ad soundtracks or 1964-66 Bob Dylan covers (email me for that playlist).

Perhaps music and reading don’t mix after all. If Victor Hugo had Spotify would he have churned out Les Misérables?

Don DeLillo/Sigur Ros Pics: Thousand Robots/Jose Goulao

Don DeLillo/Sigur Ros
Pics: Thousand Robots/Jose Goulao

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The breath and beat and bloom of Picasso

'Still Life with a Mandolin' Pablo Picasso

‘Still Life with a Mandolin’
Pablo Picasso

Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences.

What makes a work of art ‘good’ for you is not something that is already ‘inside’ it, but something that happens inside you.

Brian Eno’s observation occurred to me as I walked around the National Gallery of Ireland recently.

I was there to view an exhibition of paintings and photography by the Irish artist Sean Scully. As I walked around the five rooms, all concrete and space and shuffling, I felt distracted – by other visitors, noise, the whisperings of the security guards. With the exception of one or two pieces I felt at odds with the exhibits.

Pablo Picasso, 1916 Pic: Amedeo Modigliani (detail from photograph)

Pablo Picasso, 1916
Pic: Amedeo Modigliani (detail from photograph)

Any connection I felt was faint, dipping in and out.

Bored, and somewhat annoyed, I left. As I did so, and with time to kill, I noticed the Gallery’s display of works from its permanent collection. Figuring I’d have a quick glance at the Gallery’s heavy-hitter, The Taking of Christ, I stepped in.

The Caravaggio was there, along with a wealth of other paintings from the 15th to the 20th centuries. It made for a pleasant, if not soul-grabbing, 20 minutes.

Then, as I was preparing to leave, there it was. Near the final room and amid a clutch of 20th century works, hung Still Life with a Mandolin. Perspective bending and saturated with Mediterranean colour the painting seizes attention. Minutes passed as I attempted to trace my way around Pablo Picasso’s work – over the bowl of fruit, across the wine bottle, up through the silhouette of the trees outside.

It left an impression as vivid at the light of Juan-Les-Pins –  even though it’s a night still-life.

Picasso created the work at Juan-Les-Pins in the summer of 1924, a year after Cubism had been declared dead. Not so, he painted.

But a biography of the work is inessential. As Eno indicated, the value of standing before Still Life with a Mandolin lies outside the painting, in the emotions I/you feel.

Life, light, summer, music, wine, fruit – all the good, true and important things are here, breath and beat and bloom.

The painting’s on display until the end of the year. Have a look – it may trigger something.

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Thousand of books, nothing to read

Daunt Books, Marylebone

Daunt Books, Marylebone

Shopping paralyses me.

Not in the ‘lost male in home furnishings’ way (although I once managed, embarrassingly, to lose myself in a Macy’s outlet), but more the ‘holding two items in either hand and sweating’ way.

The excess of choice, the thousands of single items to choose from – in this shop, on this day, NOW – jam my circuits and lead me to walk away, empty-handed.

Take last weekend. With an hour to spare in London, I headed to the Charing Cross Road to browse the bookstores. I’d even drawn up a short list of potential buys on my phone – what could possibly go wrong?

Some 45 minutes, and four bookshops, later and I am standing in the middle of Foyles, staring up at three floors of books above. Everywhere I look there is something I could read, hundreds of potential purchases within metres, including everything on my list. I thumb through the H’s of Fiction, make a half-hearted stab at browsing the wall-to-wall Poetry before I shuffle off, stomaching an odd mix of indecision and anger.

And it’s not just books. Every time I enter a record shop I’m confronted with this same tyranny of choice – hundreds of albums I want to listen to but will never have the time to hear.

debtA ‘first world problem’? I don’t think so. I want less consumer items in my life, not more (our apartment is crammed with books and CDs as it stands); a used album is just as good as a new one.

Shortly after my book trek, while picking through a pile of CDs in a Soho record store I thought of a tweet posted by Brian Eno days earlier: “I realise the reason I like playing records (as opposed to CDs) is that they’re short…I want less music.”

I never believed I’d reach a point at which I want less music, less books, less choice. But it’s happened. Faced with a tsunami  (and that’s before we get to the infinite distractions of the Internet) of writing and music, film and TV drama, my reaction now is to step back.

Walking back to my hotel last Saturday, along Marylebone High Street, I spotted an Oxfam shop. I stepped in and made straight for the books’ section, a small collection in a corner of the store.

The choice was minimal but there, on a shelf, was one of the books on my list – The Debt To Pleasure. Without the temptations of a dozen other titles, it stood out – a £2, 20-year-old paperback.

It was the easiest buy I’d made in months.

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The right notes – music to read by

FullSizeRender (1)Back in the early 2000s I worked a night shift job. Each morning I’d return to the house I shared with three others at 4 or 5am, and read for a hour in bed before turning in.

I’d always believed that reading, like sleeping or writing, was best done in silence. But there’s silence and then there’s 4am silence. The coastal suburb I lived in was pin-drop quiet.

And so I picked up a new habit – I’d play music as I read. The only condition was that the music had to be quiet – not solely in terms of volume but also by way of sound.

I spent most of those early mornings listening to Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, Volume II. The slow surges, whale-call noises, absence of percussion – all served to fill the lingering silence of an early summer morning in Clontarf.

The music also helped me, it seemed, focus on what I was reading. The subject matter might have differed (two of the books I read at that time were Crime And Punishment and a popular biography of Irish Arctic explorer Tom Crean) but the effect of music was the same. Like the ambient hum of one’s body heard in a sound-proofed room the music lingered, just out of feeling but present, while I read.

Brian Eno. Detail from 'Music For Films' sleeve

Brian Eno

The use of music as an aid to reading is a well-covered topic. This week I was brought back to my pre-dawn reading sessions when I encountered a post by Sam Jordison on the Guardian’s Books blog. Much of the article concerned how we can battle ‘aural sludge’ – distracting and loud daily noises -when reading.

I find it difficult, if not impossible, to deep read amidst loud noise – even custom-made soundtracks are unlikely to help me.

But the article led to me to ask: what other music worked like Selected Ambient Works, Volume II did, as a reading aid?

In the 12 years since those night shift days I’ve encountered only a few: a Naxos collection of Chopin’s piano works, Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks and, perhaps, Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way.

The ‘x’ factor in each of these recordings is hard to pin down. Perhaps the tidal feel of the music in each set of recordings is the key; or perhaps the absence or mere suggestion of a beat which, when present, is no faster than my resting heart rate.

Whatever their key is they all work to break ground, coming through silence to open my ear and eye and mind to absorb the words.

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Meeting The Beatles (again)

The Beatles at the start.

The Beatles, 1964.

The Beatles have always been a part of my life.

Like rain. Or the sun. Or the colour yellow.

I devote little attention to the music. It’s just there, in the background, always three skips away, or on some Sky Arts documentary.

Like most people under 50 I’ve no recollection of the first time I heard one of their songs. It was likely my mother humming Love Me Do when I was still in the womb.

The band itself was long defunct by my 1980s childhood, of course. Despite this, the first cassette I ever stuck in my Walkman, as a kid flitting down Athlone’s Ballymahon Road, was a Beatles’ best of.

The years passed and the songs would pop up or creep in here and there.

As a teenager I learned basic guitar chords in order to play Fool On The Hill. I have vague recollections of nights in bars in San Francisco’s Mission district, where a pal and I would load the jukebox with dollars to play Abbey Road end-to-end.

Fifteen years after that I was back to playing Beatles’ tunes, this time back on guitar at my sister’s wedding.

But in recent years the music slipped out of reach. I drifted away, wandering the outer reaches of Eno’s Ambient series, or trying to follow Monk solos.

The Beatles, near the end.

The Beatles, 1969.

Last May I came close to seeing a Paul McCartney show in Japan. Circumstances conspired to prevent that from happening and afterwards I meandered on, with a vague, guilty notion that I really needed to listen to more of his solo albums, or go back to The Beatles.

But I didn’t. Until last week.

Sifting through the racks at a Dublin record store I came across a copy of Let It Be. It occurred to me that – despite knowing the melody of almost every tune on it – I’d never actually owned a copy of it.

That night I put it on, listened to the opening track Two Of Us and, for the first time in a long time, I heard, really heard, the greatness again.

Two Of Us is The Beatles.

Written by McCartney, it lacks some of the Lennon bite. But this is balanced on the album, as it follows a skittish vocal outtake of Lennonesque nonsense.

The song has all the classic Beatles’ element.

Paul and Linda McCartney. Pic: Corvin

Paul and Linda McCartney.
Pic: Corvin

It’s lyrics are a brotherly you-and-me-against-the-world, the you and me McCartney and Lennon (as Ian McDonald surmised*) – despite the former’s claim that the song was written about Linda Eastman.

The pair’s Everly Brothers-style vocal harmony harks back to their early days playing together in Liverpool.

It’s impossible not to tap your foot to the rhythm, or hum the descending C to A of “hard-earned pay”.

It’s not all swiftness and light though. The song’s brightness is subverted in its six-bar middle section, as McCartney shifts to a melancholy B flat.

This is resolved as we move into the verse again, but the closing lyrics point to divergent paths ahead: “Two of us wearing raincoats, standing solo, in the sun”.

Recorded at a fractious time, as their group began to fall apart and amidst tension between Lennon and McCartney, Two Of Us is, in three and a half minutes, all that made The Beatles great.

It’s why some Beatles’ songs are close to pop perfection.

And it’s why I should listen to them more often.

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*Ian McDonald, Revolution In The Head (Pimlico, 1994), p 268

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‘Two chords are pushing it.’

'Here he comes, all dressed in black.' Lou Reed, 2011. Pic: Man Alive!

‘Here he comes, all dressed in black.’
Lou Reed, 2011.
Pic: Man Alive!

I WAS in a garage band once: a band of guys crammed into the dusty garage.

Once a week we’d meet up and bang out whatever we could.

I’d like to say there was a highly refined aesthetic to our efforts. There wasn’t.

The four of us played the only way we could and let the missed cues, bum notes and false starts look after themselves.

This is the point where I quote Brian Eno’s line about everyone who bought the first  Velvet Underground album forming a band.

It’s the sort of tired aphorism that Lou Reed might’ve eventually despised, probably, despite it being – in our case at least – partly true.

One of the first songs we rehearsed and recorded was I’m Waiting For The Man. I’m sure we tried Femme Fatale or Sunday Morning at various stages, before attempting our own material.

But even after we’d dropped Velvets’ songs from our warm up (we never tried to write like them, strangely enough) Reed’s ‘one chord’ sonic DIY advice remained.

Not least when it came to recording. Idling online on the morning after his death I landed on a track we’d recorded in that garage one winter a decade ago.

Reed was all over this effort, in spirit at least.

As I remember it the song was cut on a single Sennheiser vocal mike, hung from a roof beam. I think there was a second track for the vocal but I can’t recall (though we certainly mixed something afterwards in ProTools).

My main memories are trying to keep enough blood running through my freezing fingers to hit the blink-and-you-miss-it lead solo.

We always regarded the recording as rough, about as scuzzed out as anyone’s ears could tolerate. But didn’t White Light/White Heat sound rough as hell too?

'One chord is fine'. Rehearsal, 2012.

‘One chord is fine’.
Rehearsal, 2012.

This was the Lou Reed Effect, for me. Just play it. If it’s raw leave it raw.

Listening to Four Miles ten years later I’m glad we applied that. The just-within-our-grasp beat, whatever pedal mix that was, the lo fi drums, even the solo, all sound just dirty and distorted enough to work.

Praise – or blame – Lou Reed for that. RIP.

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Have you ever heard the rain?

Rain falling in Alsaace, France. Pic: Axel Rouvin

Rain falling in Alsace, France.
Pic: Axel Rouvin

IS THERE a more relaxing sound that rain falling on trees?

This dripping soundtrack was the silver lining to the cloud which encroached on Wexford overnight last Saturday, signalling an end to July’s heatwave.

Lying and listening, awake in the darkness, it occurred to me how rarely I actually hear rain (though I feel it plenty).

I doubt I’m the only one.

Precipitation is a source of constant complaint in Ireland. That’s not surprising, given that parts of the country experience an average of 225 wet days a year.

But focusing on the sight and the feel of rain – neither of which is usually very pleasant – usually means that I miss the sound, the consistent, light drum of falling drops on leaves.

The calming effect of this may be simply an aural impact, the drops creating a sound which slips into sync with my brainwaves.

It could also have a much deeper psychological resonance, a link to a primitive human past where rainfall meant renewal of life, or growth, or a ‘oneness’ with the environment and seasons.

Or maybe it’s just soothing because I’m lying indoors in a dry bed.

That said the sound struck me again as I walked home from work late the following evening.

Moving along the tree-lined road leading to our apartment drops began to fall on the car- and wind-less street.

Removing my headphones I stood and listen to the symphony, moving and changing as drops fell on higher leaves, or lower ones, or the pavement.

Brian Eno, 1974.

Brian Eno, 1974.

The effect was almost musical.

The two incidents put me in mind of an observation made by composer Brian Eno.

In 1975, recovering in hospital following a car accident, the musician observed how the sound of rain contributed to the ambience of an environment like certain light or music did.

In Eno’s case he observed the effect the falling rain had when it was mingled with the low-volume record of harp music he was playing in the room.

This conclusion subsequently led him to create a number of groundbreaking ‘ambient’ records – containing music which comes very close to replicating the calming effect of rainsounds.

Strangely enough Eno didn’t use rain samples on these recordings – or none I can can hear at least.* (Other artists have incorporated the sound; most famously, perhaps, The Doors).

And I’ve yet to hear a musical simulacrum which has the same effect as the real thing.

Until I do I’ll just keep opening a window.

Morning on the Seine in the Rain Claude Monet (1898)

‘Morning on the Seine in the Rain’
Claude Monet (1898)

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*Unlike some other natural sounds. Two of my favourite recordings feature wind and fire – the wind on this Geir Jenssen Cho Oyo field recording and the fire crackling behind this Neil Young acoustic track.

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