Playlist: Studying for Midterms

Arts journalism grad student Greg Cwik muses on music selections that complement his studying.

When the realization of midterms’ looming presence finally becomes a bitter reality— that inevitable convulsion of clarity a splinter in your mind you’ve been picking at for five weeks but only now grasp, and you descend upon the library with your fellow classmates in droves, long serpentine lines of sweat pants three-days worn and iPhones fast-tracked to Wikipedia shimmering in the sun and headphones planted in ears with the dependency of pacemakers, and every study room is sticky-sweaty hot and the click-clack-click of so many fingers on so many keyboards threatens to drive you up a wall, Chinese water torture for the Netflix generation, and you’ve flipped through so many books you were supposed to read for class, trying in a futile fervor to consume mass quantities of information like Kobayashi with a pile of hot dogs, and the inevitable psychological breakdown lingers on the horizon, and you’ve been staring at a glowing computer screen for hours but haven’t been able to string five God damn words together to form a coherent sentence—one question remains: “What should I listen to?”

Studying is, in many ways, an art. And, as is the case with most great artists, we must feed an addiction in order to work at this art. Maybe it’s habitual, maybe psychological. Doesn’t matter: the vast majority of us need music to study. Those of us who actually study, that is.

“What kind of music should I listen to when I study?” Ah, that’s an apt question. I can’t pretend to know what everyone’s tastes are, so I won’t pretend to peddle in objectivity. This is what I listen to when I study. It’s not an exhaustive list, not by a long shot. But it’s fairly representative of the moods and atmospheres that really allow the realms of my mind to bloom like a ubiquitous lotus. This is music that allows me to write and think, doesn’t commandeer my thoughts but rather fuels them, aids them; think of this music as a consort, the score to the narrative that is my studying expedition.

I’ve already preached the greatness of SwansThe Seer on this site. The album's title track serves as my inspiration when I’m writing something a bit darker or more acidic. It’s cinematic qualities and droning melancholy fit the bill when life’s pleasantries start to feel irksome.

Miles DavisIn a Silent Way, what Lester Bangs called “space music,” was the master’s first fully electronic excursion into the unfathomable depths of jazz-rock fornication. With wah-tinged trumpet squeals and droning keyboards seemingly in their own world, slamming on one chord for four, five, six minutes, this was the first jazz album to really deconstruct jazz. Sketches of Spain earned Miles some heat for its insolence toward classic jazz aesthetics, but In a Silent Way was the first knife in Caesar’s back. Its successor, Bitches Brew, sits near the top of the Pantheon of great American musical accomplishments, an album that remains as unclassifiable as it is cool. More frantic, with more snark, Bitches Brew amalgamates psychedelic rock, prog rock, jazz fusion, trance and various other genres not yet labeled at the time of its release. In a Silent Way is wonderful when you’re in a quiet environment and need something that slowly evolves; Bitches Brew works when the room is getting a little rowdier but you still want something dense to get lost in, intriguing but not distracting. Also apt for study music is compilation Panthalassa, which takes tracks from In a Silent Way and The Complete On the Corner (Miles’ funkiest, rockin-est effort, six hours of mind-melting jams, both cerebral and spiritual) and puts them together, not so much remixing them as it has the extended tracks fluidly transition into one another. It’s sort of brilliant.

Brian Eno, the masterful producer whose credits include Talking HeadsRemain in Light and David Bowie’s Low, set the bar for atmospheric music with his Ambient Music1/ Music for Airports, four tracks and an hour-plus of ethereal keys and tones. As the name implies, the music has an airy, ephemeral quality, meditative but not cheesy. It’s maybe the great atmospheric album of all time in that it really disperses into the background and creates an aural landscape; when I put this album on, I forget it’s playing until it ends and my ears feel cold and alone, suddenly cast in a void. More atmosphere than song, each track feels fleeting, like the final breath of some dying entity rising towards heaven. This gentle album only works in a quiet setting.

ChromaticsKill for Love is kinetic dream-pop tailor-made for a burn ride along the beach on a chilly, windy day. But the drumless version, released for free online a month or so after the album’s debut, drops the “pop” moniker is simply plays like a dream. After a few tracks of reverb-saturated guitars strumming and plucking, devoid of percussion, you’ll feel like those aural waves have swept you into a slipstream.

Though it’s a gimmicky song from a bloated double LP, "Midnight City" threw M83 in the thralls of stardom. The album, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, is M83 auteur Anthony Gonzalez’ most grandiose and indulgent effort, but it does offer a few exceptional songs. For M83’s best, Dead Cities, Red Seas, & Lost Ghosts and their breakout Saturdays = Youth remain their crowning achievements. The former, the last album to feature co-founder Nicolas Fromageau, is an hour of swooning, swirling synths almost completely purged of vocals. It wouldn’t feel out of place on the Drive soundtrack, its 80s-inspired aural lust and dancey synth hooks like the first few good minutes in a limo cruising through Times Square. Saturdays = Youth adds more of a pop flare, a little romance to the lust. The drums are pulled straight from a Human League concert, loud and boisterous, ready to bring arenas of inebriated lovers to their knees in sweaty elated unison. The album has a few infectious songs, “Kim and Jessie’ and “Graveyard Girl” being most notable, but most of its tracks are sultry yet joyful instrumentals. I start to type to the beat when “Couleurs,” a discotheque anthem, plays, my fingers slapping each key with a passion fit for a night in an upscale club, bodies swaying under neon lights and a sea of strangers I’m dancing next to but not with. The final track, “Midnight Souls Still Remain,” sounds like it should be playing over an homage to “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.”


And lastly, my all-time most played album: Danny Elfman’s nightmarish score for Tim Burton’s nightmarishly bad Batman Returns. Tim Burton’s Batman films are cancerous entertainment, lurid exploitations of a childhood icon I can’t expunge from my mind. He wants to show us the Robin-less Batman, the Philip Marlowe of superheroes, prowling the squalid streets of Gotham under cloak of night, descending upon criminals predatorily, pounding human bodies like Rocky in a meat locker, dissipating into the night. The Dark Knight. But the film amounts to little more than a great cast dressed as gothic monsters trying their best to chew scenery. Elfman’s score is the highlight of the film. Vivid, nightmarish, theatrical like an opera and more emotive than the film it accompanies, it’s not just a consort to Burton’s black-as-oil-in-the-Gulf endeavor: it’s the soul of the film. Without it, Batman Returns is a series of neat set pieces and S&M leather fetishes devoid of characters, a plot, or a sense of direction. With the score it’s still all of those things, but at least it sounds really good. Elfman is to Burton what Herrmann was to Hitchcock in Vertigo. Herrmann’s score is at once sensual and devastating, a reflection of Jimmy Stewart’s character, responding to his lustful obsession as if in conversation; the spiraling strings, ascending scales, and pulsating rhythm section compulsively return to the root note again and again, lost in a Sisyphean desperation. Herrmann was working for a great filmmaker, though, a luxury Elfman is rarely offered.

Photo by scui3asteveo/Flickr

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