Academic writing can be frustrating, anxious, infuriating and slow – particularly when you are running up against deadlines you agreed to months before, and which you now realise were preposterously optimistic. However, it is also one of the pleasures of the job. I look forward to those days when I can shut myself in my office or in a room at home, sometimes wearing noise-cancelling headphones, and immerse myself in the quiet process of reading and writing.


For me, music has always played an important role in establishing a calm mood in which to work, but there are only certain pieces of music that I can write with. Whereas when I’m painting I can listen to aggressive, densely structured music at high volume – ‘industrial’ electronic music, heavy metal and hip hop, contemporary jazz and experimental or avant-garde compositions – the music I listen to when I’m writing has to be quiet, wordless and free of narrative or melodic incident. Writing with the radio or TV on in the background is impossibly distracting. My sense is that I use music to occupy a small area of my attention that’s not engaged by the writing process and might otherwise be wandering and bored. In addition I think that the low-level tinnitus that years of concert-going and playing in bands has left me with is masked by quiet ambient noise; I only notice it when it’s very quiet.


Over the years I’ve found only a small number of pieces of music that work as accompaniments to writing, some of them only categorisable as music according to John Cage’s definition of music as ‘organized sound’. I’ve listened to some of these pieces over and over again – I’ve probably listened to Thursday Afternoon, Brian Eno’s soundtrack for a video installation, more than any other album I own – but in some respects have barely listened to them, as my attention has been focused upon reading and writing. Most of this delicate, immaculately constructed ‘music’ is electronic, or uses heavily processed and manipulated acoustic instruments such as the felt-dampened piano used by Arnold Kasar. The exceptions are the albums by sound recordist (and former member of Cabaret Voltaire), Chris Watson, which are montages assembled from field recordings. All of them, however, might fall within the category of ‘ambient music’, within which Eno first placed Music for Airports: music that is ‘as ignorable as it is interesting’. They are the aural equivalent of faded, out-of-focus photographs.


Occasionally I find myself listening to soundtrack albums, such as Eduard Artemiev’s music for Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the score for Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Lockerby Buck Sanders and Marco Beltrami, or Jo Hisaishi’s music for Takeshi Kitano’s films. In general though, the disjointedness, tonal variation and drama of soundtrack albums is too distracting when I’m trying to think and write.


In no particular order, then, my ‘writing music’ top ten:

  • Brian Eno: Thursday Afternoon (1985), Music for Airports (1978), Neroli (Thinking Music, part IV) (1993)
  • Jean-Michel Jarre: En Attendant Cousteau (1990)
  • Hiroshi Yoshimura: Music for Nine Postcards (1982)
  • Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto: summvs (2011)
  • Christian Fennesz and Ryuichi Sakamoto, Flumina (2011)
  • Chris Watson: In St Cuthbert’s Time (2013)
  • Chris Watson and BJ Nilsen: Storm (2007)
  • Richard Skelton: Towards a Frontier (2017)
  • Rameses III: I Could Not Love you More (2016)
  • Roedelius and Arnold Kasar: Einfluss (2017)