Thursday, March 8, 2012

Silence or…? The editor’s playlist

Do you work to music?

My office is sepulchral in its silence, and sometimes that’s good for editing. If I want company, I can wander upstairs and talk about EU emissions regulations, the number of ships at anchor outside Australia’s major coal ports or the differential between Saudi contract prices for butane and propane. Life is never dull. But when I work from home, I need something to puncture the solitude. 

Choosing music is a delicate task for an editor. Some insist on silence, while others seem capable of working with the most raucous of rackets buffeting their eardrums (yes, Anthony and Cathy, I'm talking about you). 

One of the few advantages of having one's family dropping dead is that you get to steal their stuff, and a rummage through some of John's old CDs while I was working at home recently prompted the following tweet:
I’m trying new background music for editing: Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother. Going well so far. What works for you?
Anthony Rowlinson (@F1_Prof) suggested Queens Of The Stone Age, while Cathy Relf (@CaffyRelf), who must have nerves of steel, suggested this barnstorming performance by The Pogues & The Dubliners. Sue Proud (@ewesub) said, “Hans Zimmer’s Batman music is dark and angry enough for me, but I don’t use it at work.” Eleanor Crawford (@el_crawford) is inspired in eschewing music altogether in favour of Test Match Special, which is almost a zen experience.

Editing requires concentration, and that restricts my choice of background noise. Anything too raucous or uptempo is distracting, while prominent use of English is confusing, like having someone talking to me while I work. There’s also the fact that singing has a certain rhythm, which is different to the rhythm of the written word. A sensitive editor will make sure that the final edit has a rhythm that helps the reader, which is why I don't like to have competing rhythms in my head. 

Fulfilling all the above criteria eliminates most of my music collection. After years of experimenting, I find I need music where the vocals are down in the mix or in another language altogether because I don’t want to be totally dependent on instrumentals. Here are some of the best pieces I’ve found:

The Placid Sub-Editor's playlist
Hallogallo – Neu!     This is absolutely perfect. Klaus Dinger’s motorik beat is gentle yet unstoppable like a river, while Michael Rother’s guitar swirls and eddies around it.
Pharaoh’s Dance – Miles Davis     Abstract psychedelic jazz isn’t going to disrupt anyone’s concentration.
Slip Inside This House – Primal Scream     It’s hard to choose between this and the 13th Floor Elevators’ magnificent original, but Primal Scream give this classic a trance-like quality that makes it the better choice if you want to get some work done.
7th Symphony 2nd Movement – Ludwig van Beethoven     Beethoven is a bit too energetic for quiet concentration, but how can you resist that second movement? I first heard it ripped off by Deep Purple on one of their early albums. Take enlightenment where you find it, I say.
Echoes – Pink Floyd     The Floyd’s longest single piece of music, floaty and peaceful and without the alarm clocks that might just distract you if you’re foolish enough to choose Dark Side Of The Moon.
Valium 10 – Hawkwind     A bit of psychedelic trance boogie from the space-rock hippies (try to ignore the dentist’s drill at the start). Peps you up a bit in case the Floyd leaves you too laid-back.
Hyper-Gamma Spaces – Alan Parsons Project     A casual, almost throw-away electronic instrumental from the much-derided post-prog AOR criminals.
Bel Air – Can     Like Echoes, Can’s ethereal masterpiece sustained a whole side of vinyl, but with the rhythmic discipline that keeps you engaged without becoming overwhelming – an effect that is helped by Damo Suzuki’s vocals, which are almost subliminal.
Flow Motion – Can     In their world music phase, Can came up with these abstract guitar and vocal variations around a simple, reggae-inspired rhythm.
Isi – Neu!     This sounds like a foretaste of 80s electronica, which is hardly surprising since Neu! were early members of Kraftwerk.
Tenhert – Tinariwen     A sort of Berber blues shuffle, and the lyrics won’t be a distraction unless your Tamashek is more fluent than mine.
Beartown – Polar Bear     Jazz is one of the few genres that works as background music, and Polar Bear have given it a thoroughly 21st Century twist.
So Far – Faust     A simple, insistent rhythm that’s remarkably restrained by Faust’s usual standards. They're not even using a cement mixer.
Naturträne – Nina Hagen Band     Teutonic punk-opera anyone?
Awaken – Yes     I know this breaks my rule about English lyrics, but let’s not forget that these words were written by the notoriously nebulous Jon Anderson and so scarcely count as English. I have an album of Serbian turbo-folk with more comprehensible lyrics than almost anything by 1970s Yes. 
Samba Do Gringo Paulista (Reconstruction) – Bigga Bush / Suba     Speaking of Serbian music, what’s wrong with a bit of laid-back Serbo-Brazilian electro-samba? There’s an interesting story behind the Serbian influences in my music collection, but I can’t tell you in case MI6 is reading this. 
Rollin’ on Chrome – Aphrodelics (Kruder & Dorfmeister remix)     Maybe this is a bit too chilled for a sunny afternoon (or daylight in general), but let’s give it a go. 
Merge – Lamb     A bit of jazzy drum’n’bass, or is an English samba? Lamb seem to inhabit the badlands between Portishead and the Alan Parsons Project, which is the sort of obsveration that ensures I often drink alone.
The Creep Out – Dandy Warhols       So when does the song start, Courtney? It doesn't. There's just a remorseless, compulsive intensification of rhythmic sound, though not as brash and intrusive as you’d expect from a group dedicated to hedonistic alt-pop.

Played in full, that should give you about three hours of listening. Sharp-eyed readers will notice the preponderance of German music (seven out of 20, plus one Austrian). I listen to other genres at other times, but I find the rejection of blues-based Anglo-American rock gives Krautrock an ideal quality for writing and editing. It complements my thoughts instead of overwhelming them. With careful choosing, I could probably put together a playlist to last all day based purely on Neu!, with a bit of Can for variety (when I've finished, I’ll slap on a bit of Beefheart). But don’t take my word for it. Ask Iggy Pop.

That’s what does it for me, but I can’t keep playing the same old stuff. What works for you? C’mon, give me some fresh ideas.


  1. Coltrane's "In a Sentimental Mood" transports me.

    1. Blue Train is sitting on my shelf for just those moments.

    2. Can't work and listen to music. If I'm working, I'm 'in the zone', and nothing else gets through. If the music's worth listening to, I can't work.

  2. You use music as background noise; I use it for self-bribery. I'm not working when I put the Irish Rover on, I'm clinging to the standing lamp and pretending I'm Shane MacGowan. And I can, because I reached page 20, pared something down to 3,000 words, cleared my inbox, or whatever it was I told myself I had to do before I could pretend to be Shane MacGowan. Or Shaggy. Or Janis.

    But as for playing music while working, oh no. Only silence for these eardrums.

  3. J. Alexander StevensOctober 2, 2013 at 8:17 PM

    It's difficult (for this purpose) to improve upon Vladimir Sofronitsky's live recordings of Schumann, Chopin, and Beethoven.