Thursday, August 20, 2009

Background Music

20 August 2009

I play background music all day when I'm at my office. I do so as well on the rarer occasions when I have a little time to relax at home in the evenings.

The secret of background music is that it has to be interesting and agreeable, but unobtrusive. Thus, heavily orchestrated arrangements don't work well.

Here are a few examples of CDs that I have found to constitute enjoyable background listening:

My present favourite is Sol Gabetta's Il Progetto Vivaldi, gorgeous, rich, complex, unobtrusive and in fact perfect cello. I am so entranced by Gabetta's graceful performances that I literally can't stop playing this particular CD.

Alexander Paley's refined and subtle interpretation of Bach's Goldberg Variations are a delight to the ear.

I am also enjoying the Ornette Coleman Trio, "At the 'Golden Circle' Stockholm."

Consider as well Newsound's two-disc Charlie Parker collection (image unavailable).

For those of you who have listened only to R. Carlos Nakai, try Kyle Councillor's "Livin the Good Life" for traditional North American Aboriginal flute music, one of my great favourites.

John Coltrane's Giant Steps is one of the greatest of all jazz classics, and unobtrusive enough to serve as auditory context for a mellow day.

And Blue Trane is also a great backgrounder.

On a classical note, try the Orford String Quartet's "Mozart String Quartets."

For classical Spanish guitar, "The Legendary Segovia" cannot be faulted.

Julian Bream's "Music of Spain" provides perfect melodies and rhythms when used to add context to almost any worthy activity.

From the classic jazz page, consider Brubeck's milestone recording, "Time Out" for some adventures in time - that is, adventures with variable time signatures.... "Take Five" was the first jazz instrumental to sell a million copies. ("Time Further Out" is also worth taking a look at.)

One of my perennial favourites, and one of the first albums I ever owned, is Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain. It's easy to listen to, and I particularly like this one late at night.

Now I'm going to get into some picks that may or may not work for you as background music, depending on the circumstances. But I consider all of these too interesting not to mention. Only this summer, we visited the Big Jonathan Centre of the Selkirk (Northern Tutchone) Nation in the Yukon, where Jerry Alfred is an elder. His recordings are featured at Big Jonathan House. I've been listening to Mr. Alfred's music for years - a combination of traditional and contemporary elements. It is haunting and hypnotic. Try Etsi Shon (Grandfather Songs) as an introduction.

While we're talking about old favourites, try Skeleton Woman, inspired by the writings of Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

Another of Susan's and my great favourites, usually played during the Christmas season, is James Galway's "Winter's Crossing," telling the tale in music of the men and women who crossed by sea from Northern Ireland to North America. Caution, these compositions are haunting, magical and spiritually dense.

And while we're talking dense, magical and complex, consider Oliver Schroer's brilliant, dissonant violin renderings recorded in Spanish cathedrals during the artist's pilgrimage through Spain.

And as we wander further afield, please direct your attention to Robert Johnson's original 1936 and 1937 recordings, completed shortly before his untimely death. Johnson is arguably the most important of all Delta blues musicians and composers. His music is raw, intricate, haunting, at times disturbing, and ultimately deeply engaging. Note that there were no "studios" at the time these classic compositions were committed to wax. This music works best for me after the sun has set.

My final pick will serve as background music only in certain circumstances. The disc features considerable variation in dynamic range, style, taste and genre. But combined, these selections are magical. Literally intended for Valentine celebrations, this two-disc set is from Deutsche Grammophon: "Be My Valentine: Music for Two."

Let me re-emphasize that the earlier picks are suitable for background listening in many situations. Obviously many more in this genre could have been selected.

The later picks are for various reasons more specialized or idiosyncratic. What all of the above have in common is that they have proven themselves to be enduring favourites in my music library.

And for those who need to know, I do not own an MP3 player. These are CDs!


  1. Skeleton Woman and Winter Crossing are my favourites.

    I don't mind Robert Johnson, but I wouldn't call him background music any time of day.

    Segovia is wonderful.

  2. Let's try again. Sounds like the kind of music my massage therapist plays. I always enjoy the interesting mix.

  3. I certainly think this music fits in well with my kind of work also. I have gotten to the point that I don't ask permission. I just think it is generally best to add music to interpersonal dialogue. There is an additional advantage of enhancing privacy as well (white noise). And in general, I subscribe to the maxim that we should surround ourselves with things and people that we love....

  4. Excellent list ... I haven't hear of all of them, but some I have. Maybe I'll go iTunes shopping.

  5. I guess you can play samples online to help you make your own choices. Based on this post, I've added several new discs, and I'm experimenting with them right now. John Coltrane's "Favourite Things" is moving up to the top of the list....

  6. I have gotten to the point that I don't ask permission. I just think it is generally best to add music to interpersonal dialogue.

  7. Hey Janice, I'm with you now. I've moved to an iPod, and this just runs all day. It also boosts privacy during sessions....

  8. re Brubeck: compare Take Five on the "Take Five" album with same song on their 25th anniversary reunion album. It's really a hoot to hear how their sound changed over time.

    For background, I'm enjoying exotica from the 50s, like Martin Denny's Quiet Village, and the updated versions by Don Tiki.

  9. Bill, I'll have to make those comparisons.

    I was raised with the original recordings on vinyl, though they were probably stereo, as my father was very progressive technologically.

    For new recordings, I have Park Avenue South [Live], which includes 'Take Five.'

    I'll have to look up quiet village and get back to you.

    By the way, were you at NC in February this year (big crowd)?

    As to background music, I am very multi-modal, as I have just upgraded to internet radio, digital HD cable and Sirius-XM at home, not to mention the iPod and the (better quality) CDs on a very nice Yamaha player that must weigh 20 pounds!