Tag Archives: Work

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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‘The strange courage of the second rate’

Charles Bukowksi

Charles Bukowksi

No one remembers the person who comes second. Or third. Or twelfth.

History, in as much as it remembers anyone, reserves its slots for the winners.

And yet almost all of mankind’s graft, humanity’s progress and civilisation’s march has been done by the also-rans, the forgettable others who simply got on with it.

As Charles Bukowski had it, for every Wagner there’s a Bruckner.

While the mercurial Wagner revolutionised opera and was seen as the inventor of modern classical music, his contemporary was a humbler man, who acknowledged Wagner’s greatness while producing some lesser known symphonies of his own.

Anton Bruckner

Anton Bruckner

Bukowski was himself no stranger to the world of uninspiring graft. Until the age of 49 he worked various mundane jobs, most notably as a post office clerk, while writing at night.

Perhaps that explains his affinity with those who did “the best they could/and kept on doing it/even when they knew they/were second best”.

Milton’s thousands, “who only stand and wait”, become Bukowski’s second raters, those of us “who refuse to quit”.

His short poem ‘Bruckner (2)’ is a tribute to their presence, their perseverance, their “strange courage”.

Bruckner wasn’t bad
even though he got down
on his knees
and proclaimed Wagner
the master.

It saddens me, I guess,
in a small way
because while Wagner was
hitting all those homers
Bruckner was sacrificing
the runners to second
and he knew it.

and I know that
mixing baseball metaphors with classical
music
will not please the purists
either.

I prefer Ruth to most of his teammates
but I appreciate those who did
the best they could
and kept on doing it
even when they knew they
were second best.

this is your club fighter
your back-up quarterback
the unknown jock who sometimes
brings one in
at 40-to-one.

this was Bruckner.

there are times when we should
remember
the strange courage
of the second-rate
who refuse to quit
when the nights
are black and long and sleepless
and the days are without
end.

_____

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Home in the rue Cardinal Lemoine

At 74 Rue Cardinal Lemoine

At 74 Rue Cardinal Lemoine.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Ernest Hemingway’s ghost has long since fled the Place Contrescarpe, in the fifth arrondissement of Paris, and is likely easier found now in San Sebastian, Havana or Ketchum.

But Paris being Paris, the building where he lived in the early 1920s, “very poor and very happy” with his wife and newborn son, still stands.

I discovered this on a visit last weekend, when my wife and I walked up the winding Rue Cardinal Lemoine, away from the bustle of the Boulevard Saint-Germain.

There are more famous literary landmarks in the City of Light, and more famous Hemingway ones even.

But, on a pristine Parisian afternoon this small symbol of domesticity, hope, ambition and youth in a life later strewn with great success and personal wreckage was our destination.

The book which brought us there was A Moveable Feast, the collection of vignettes Hemingway wrote in Cuba in his last, declining years, at a remove of almost half a century from “the early days”, as he described them, spent as a journalist and sometimes-starving writer eking out a living in the cafes of Montparnasse.

The work famously contains distilled and stripped portraits of fellow writers, not least Hemingway’s fellow ex-pats Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein (revealing how the latter borrowed her famous ‘lost generation’ comment from a local mechanic, no less). But written into and between these accounts are fascinating small details of the writer’s day-to-day acts of work, love, eating and drinking.

Clare and I had travelled to Paris from Dublin exhausted, pulled taut by stress, sleep-deprived and weary. Hemingway’s accounts of a less-complicated (on the surface only, of course) domestic and working life had appealed to us for sometime. And so we found ourselves outside a chipped blue door, beneath a simple white plaque, stepping aside as a resident returned home with her shopping.

Hemingway in Paris, 1924

Hemingway in Paris, 1924.
Pic: Ernest Hemingway Collection (JFK Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

In 1922 Hemingway lived with Hadley Richardson on the third floor at 74 Rue Cardinal Lemoine, “a two-room flat that had no hot water and no inside toilet facilities…With a fine view and a good mattress and springs for a comfortable bed on the floor”.

Lunch there was “little radishes, and a good foie de veau with mashed potatoes and an endive salad. Apple tart”.

Rising early Hemingway walked to work daily, to a garret-room at a nearby hotel on Rue Descartes, where he would attempt to write “one true sentence, and then go on from there”. He later declared: “Work could cure almost anything, I believed then, and I believe now.”

Sitting on the Place Contrescarpe, dry and bright unlike its rain-lashed, impoverished appearance at the opening of A Moveable Feast, Clare and I discussed these simple pleasures and truisms.

Very poor rarely means very happy. And the opposite is not the case, either. So we go on seeking the balance. Some days or hours or nights, we find it.

That evening we returned to our rented apartment and later walked the hill at Montmartre to look on Paris below. Hungry, we went on to Le Comptoir des Belettes on Rue Lamarck, where we ate tartines and characturie and drank rose.

Then we returned home to the night breeze on our balcony, the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur above and the murmur of the streets below.

And we were happy.

Charcuterie plate at Le Comptoir des Belettes, 18e

Charcuterie plate at Le Comptoir des Belettes, 18e


All quotes in this post are from A Moveable Feast

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