I”ve found that I can work much better at repetitive or research-intensive tasks that require a lot of sitting here and staring if I have good brain music to work by.
When I last was a member of Cubicle Nation (and I was a member of 25 years’ standing, too), one of the pieces that helped me enormously in concentrating and getting down to business with a particularly recalcitrant office duty was the The Art of Fugue, J.S. Bach’s very last composition, and one that’s famously unfinished. The recording I listened to was that of the Russian pianist Tatyana Nikolayeva, and I must have favored it for brain work for somewhere in the neighborhood of two years running.
Although The Art of Fugue has the usual Baroque downside of being mostly in the same key throughout (D minor), this is an astonishing piece of music, and remarkable for study purposes. Bach is able to take the unlikeliest permutations of his theme, a melodic fragment of very humble promise, and make spellbinding music out of it. A good case in point is the 13th fugue, a 3-voice construct that begins with some closely argued triplets that soon share pride of place with a jaunty dotted-eighth-and-sixteenth pattern. These combine to exhilarating effect; I know from my days as a modal counterpoint student that dealing with any fugue subject more complicated than five or six notes, half of them long and slow, would be a daunting task indeed, and here’s Bach with a blizzard of triplets and then a march version of that same rhythm for his subject, and it’s brilliant.
I greatly enjoyed the Nikolayeva recording, but I didn’t take it with me when I left work for the last time, and so last week I borrowed the Pierre-Laurent Aimard recording from the library. This was also extremely fine playing — I admire his discs of the Messiaen Vingt Regards, as I’ve mentioned — but there’s something kind of detached about it. I wasn’t as involved in it as I was the older Russian recording, which, stereotypically enough, was more soulful, mysterious and emotional.
But the Aimard was excellent music to work by, and I’ve found Bach in general good for cerebellum exercises. I have a fine recording of Richard Goode playing three of the Bach partitas, and his recording of two of the Mozart piano concerti (Nos. 23 and 24) also works beautifully for letting the mind work for sustained stretches.
This raises an interesting question, and that of course is whether the music is best-suited for background music. Certainly composers of an earlier day wrote with the expectation that much of their music was supplying ambient sound of a general kind. And while Bach and Mozart are revered, as they should be, how many minds wander far afield while their pieces are played in today’s concert halls?
Once I heard the Russian pianist Kosntantin Lifschitz play the first 12 preludes and fugues from both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and it was an absorbing experience. I had studied the pieces for years, and I brought my study scores with me to check for interpretive niceties, but it was still incredible to hear these pieces come alive as they did at the hands of a gifted player.
But that was a special kind of listening, and I was prepared for it by years of study and playing the preludes and fugues through on my own battered upright. I recognized several other people in the audience as well-known area musicians and pedagogues, so they were a special audience, too.
What I’m wondering is whether when I listen to it with half my brain while the rest is working on something else, am I paying it the ultimate sign of disrespect?
Or is the music protean enough to work fine as mental wallpaper but also be available to reveal the highest artistic achievement when you’ve got time to listen to it?
I think it’s the latter; it’s surely true that truly bad music that works fine as wallpaper won’t stand up under scrutiny, so it’s logical to think that great stuff is ready to show its greatness when you can give it the attention it deserves.
In the meantime, I’m grateful for the malleability of Bach, and he’s helped me get through a lot of computer work I would gladly have bypassed had I that option. If anyone else has a list of good music to work by, please post it and share your ideas.