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Top 5 records to listen to while writing

I do a lot of writing in my job, often in a noisy office environment where I need to shut out other people’s conversations in order to concentrate on creating something meaningful with words. Like many others, I find that, when crafting language, interesting music (without words – almost always) helps me find flow – far better than a pomodoro IMHO.

Here are my top 5 records to write to.

Andrew Bird, Useless Creatures

Andrew Bird is one of my favourite artists around at the moment. Maybe it’s the violin and viola thing that appeals to me, and he is certainly one of the most successful users of the sound in the context of what is undeniably rock/pop music, rather than a classical or folk rock blend. That’s what we’ve always tried to do with FourPlay, but that’s different again, being all strings. Andrew Bird and Owen Pallett are in a category of their own – both great song writers, amazing loopers, and very proficient violinists.

Useless Creatures was released as a companion piece to Noble Beast, Bird’s fifth solo album, in 2010. Having just sung his praises for blending violin and viola into rock songs, I recognise its slightly odd to then choose his one instrumental album, but this is my post, so tough. Despite lacking his distinctive vocal timbre and equally distinctive self-consciously too-clever-by-half lyrics, this is a totally identifiably Bird album, from the whistling to the fiddle-through-amp sound to the quality of the music itself.

If I’m after interesting music with a great energy to it and without lyrics, multi-purpose writing music, Useless Creatures is a frequent choice.

John Zorn, Bar Kokhba

Much of what the avant garde musician and composer, John Zorn, has produced would be among the least suitable records for writing to, as far as I’m concerned. Wild saxophones, crazy atonal improvisations, all sorts of weird and wonderful and deeply distracting stuff. But Zorn has also made some beautiful, haunting music exploring his Jewish heritage, mostly over many years with his Masada project.

In 1996, Zorn arranged some of the Masada works for various permutations and small ensembles of a septet of some of the best klezmer musicians around (Mark Feldman, David Krakauer, Erik Friedlander, Marc Ribot and others) for a double CD release called Bar Kokhba. While there is wildness here, there is also calm. While there is crazy avant garde improv, there is also tuneful klezmer grounded deep in its centuries old history.

Bar Kokhba is ideal if I need something with a big energy to help me write quickly – an urgent media release or a few punchy lines, for example. This music lifts the heart rate and can’t help but inject a certain excitement into what you’re writing. Particularly effective if taken with a strong espresso.

But sometimes it’s really counterproductive. Sometimes the opposite is what I need.

Peter Broderick, Float

Peter Broderick is a ridiculously young multi-instrumentalist and composer based (of course) in Portland, Oregon, writing film scores and playing solo and with Danish band Efterklang. His music – both film scores and not – has an undeniably filmic quality to it which I find extremely helpful for writing. Where a well-written film score can take you on a journey without you even noticing it’s there, it can also, I find, facilitate the creation of a such a journey – a vital aspect of speech writing, for example.

Float is Broderick’s first full length solo album, released in 2008 when he was 21. Driven by piano, it also includes violin, cello, guitar, banjo, percussion, theremin and vocals (mostly without lyrics) creating a beautiful soundscape that ‘floats’ the listener along with it. It creates momentum, but for the most part very gently. There is very little in the way of true melody for the most part. Musical motifs come and go, build on one another and dissipate, merging seamlessly into the next motif.

If I need a calming but still driving influence, something with a full sound to shut out the world but nothing that might jolt me out of my flow, this album is what I often go for.

Tous Les Matins Du Monde

Another filmic record, but completely different from the previous, this is Jordi Savall, Monserrat Figueras and Le Concert des Nations’ soundtrack to the beautiful, sensuous French film about the great viola da gamba players and composers Marin Marais, M. De Sainte Colombe and Jean-Baptiste Lully, in and around the court of Louis XIV.

Savall and Figueras are the two geniuses of this genre, filling the music with the stateliness and passions of the Sun King’s court.

I’m a sucker for early Baroque music and, as the film/soundtrack which introduced me to the genre in my final years of high school, this has a special place in my heart. It is music which has very clear structures and conventions and a steady rhythm, although with plenty of scope for personality. Also, because I know it inside and out, the music can play along in my head, occupying a section of my brain while another section works on writing.

Bach Goldberg Variations, Glenn Gould (1st version)

No list of music to write to can be complete without Johann Sebastian Bach.

Bach’s structural genius has, I’ve been told, been clinically proven to improve concentration. Regardless of the truthiness or otherwise of that, his musical genius is, in my opinion, second to none. I return to Bach over and over: when I’m sad or when I’m happy; when I’m calm or when I need to calm down; when (far too rarely) I get to take out my fiddle and play or when I’m at work and need to focus.

This is one of the most famous of all the myriad recordings of Bach’s works. Gould, an extraordinarily talented and more than a little eccentric Canadian pianist, made his reputation with a controversial recording of the Golderg Variations at the age of 22 in 1955. In 1981, the year before he died, he re-recorded the work, this time slower, more considered, relishing the music, all the while displaying his remarkable technical prowess. But it is the first version that appeals to me more, with its vivacity and vigour and its ‘get stuffed I’m going to play this however I choose’ attitude.

There is something about this record that is perfect for writing to – it has that quality of being able to sit in a distinct part of my brain, keeping it occupied, while giving the other parts (the ones I need) the necessary space and focus and inspiration to do their job.

This is half an hour of music that almost never fails to help me write better.

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