Making up playlists while listening to BBC Radio 3.
For nearly all of my days I’ve loved music, virtually all music. Vast amounts of it have defined whole periods of my life. After the obvious Beatles days of growing up there was Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue to Héjira’ period, succeeded by David Bowie’s ‘Berlin Trilogy’ then a noisy amalgam ‘Heaven up here’ period of Blondie, Chic and, yes, Echo and the Bunnymen, while I was constantly out with my housing and community work friends in the early 1980s.
But none of these periods were ever classical music, until now. When several hours of it most days helps me think, write and generally colour in my life with what I’ve decided to call ‘the sounds that heaven makes,’ as an attempted poetic subtitle for this piece of reflection.
It all began, this ‘Music to Write By’ period, soon after I arrived at the University of Liverpool in late 2018. Discovering that, for me, the answer to how I was going to concentrate through the long hours of reading and writing I’d have to do, much of it in a crowded library, would be a good supply of classical music and a very good pair of headphones. Classical music had entered my life, to my surprise, a year or so earlier when the constant news and intrusive trailers on BBC6 Music had led to me seeking the more peaceful alternative of BBC’s Radio Three. In earlier times, particularly the Bunnymen period I’d have described this ‘peaceful’ as ‘boring.’ This time it was fascinating, ‘heavenly even.
So if you want to find these sounds of heaven for yourself, even if you’ve never been there before, why not give Radio Three a go? And any hour of the day or night the music will be there, waiting for you. Then once you’ve found it, let it play. There won’t be as many announcements or interruptions as you’re used to, and the pieces played might be longer than you expect. But leave it be, if you can. And if you don’t like the first piece you might like the next or the one after. Or by then be thinking, like I did for the first while, that “This is like silence but better. More fascinating.”
Three years later and still listening I think it’s better than even that now. I have my own tastes and opinions and I don’t call it classical music any more, because it seems to live outside of specific time periods. So that some 16th century Thomas Tallis (say, ‘Spem in Allium’) might be perfectly followed by some 21st century music from, for example, Caroline Shaw (anything from her ‘Orange’ album), and sound heavenly.
Being a lifelong music compiler who grew up with compilation cassettes, as soon as I got to University and realised this music would help me to concentrate, I began putting playlists together. Thirteen of them, and counting so far, of all this heaven. Each of them about two and a half hours long, and each one being a thinking and breathing space for me. To play while I’m writing my ‘Looking for Utopia’ PhD and now, while I’m writing this as Aaron Copland’s sublime ‘Quiet City’ accompanies me. Perfect.
Until lockdown I wrote mostly by walking about, not literally, but by going to a new writing place every couple of hours. It saved me being too sedentary as well as freshening up my thinking and even typing. Hence the length of my playlists. If I reached the end of one it showed me I’d been in the same place for long enough and it was now time to move. To a different part of the library, elsewhere in the university, or somewhere downtown like the Bluecoat. Since lockdown of course all that’s changed, but the music and the headphones have still been essential as I’ve adjusted to working at home or on the allotment. Separating me from all that might be going on around me and creating the environment I like to write in, anywhere. Because when I get to wherever, there’ll be a different playlist of different music to help me start writing again.
All the music on all of my playlists has been found while listening to Radio Three. Where you can find and then make your own playlists if you want. Or maybe just leave the radio on and let it surprise you. Like you’ve been given the key to unlock a secret garden. One where the lark and other sounds of heaven are always ascending. Good starting places are the programmes of Elizabeth Alker, Petroc Trelawny or Sarah Walker. But really any programme at any time will do. On BBC Radio 3, a national treasure.
Previous versions of this article have appeared in the Liverpool zine “Writing For The Soul” and the University of Liverpool post graduate newsletter.
I make my playlists from music I’ve purchased, but if you prefer you could obviously find what you wanted on the likes of Spotify or Apple Music.