A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Desert Island Discs

The BBC Radio 4 program Desert Island Discs features a different famous guest. The guest is asked to imagine that they will be stranded upon a desert island and must choose what they will have with them. In particular, they are asked to pick:

  • eight pieces of music
  • a book. (They receive the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare in addition to whichever book they choose).
  • One luxury item of no use for escaping the island.
I do not anticipate being invited to the program any time soon - for one thing, my life hasn't been at all interesting enough yet - but have worked out a list of what I would choose were I in this position. It is not entirely complete - several of the choices are merely a choice from two or three different pieces - and is of course subject to change, but here (in no particular order) is my rough list.

Gaol Ise Gaol I/Lisnagun Jig (The Eilidhs) or Llongau Caenarfon (trad.) 
I want at least one folksy tune, and these are both lovely songs. Gaol Ise Goal I also has the distinction of being the only piece on here that I first heard live, at IVFDF 2014 in Edinburgh, so there's a personal-interest angle on that one.

Something from West Side Story (Leonard Berstein & Stephen Sondheim). I don't know what, because there are so many incredible songs from which to choose: Something's Coming, Maria, Tonight, America, One Hand One Heart, Tonight (reprise), I Feel Pretty, Gee! Officer Krupke!, I Have a Love... For the sake of having something here, I'll choose one which came out well in the original film.

Appalachian Spring (Aaron Copland). I would expect to be allowed the entire ballet, but if I'm not then I would go specifically for the fourth section, which contains what is in my opinion the single greatest moment in all of classical music. In the video below, the suite starts at about 2:05, while the moment I love so much is at 16:05 (although to appreciate it you need to listen to the thirty seconds or so leading up to it).
Incidentally, the seventh section (an adaptation of Simple Gifts, a Quaker song known to generations of pupils of Anglican schools as Lord of the Dance) is something I detested a few years back, thinking it overwrought and pretentious. I still think that it doesn't work on its own, but now that I listen to it as the climax of a half-hour ballet rather than as an isolated piece overplayed by Classic FM, I have very much come to appreciate it.

White Blank Page (Mumford & Sons) or The Sea and the Sky or I was an Oak Tree (Jonathan Byrd)
This choice allows me to combine folksiness with modernity - twice the signalling!

Symphony no. 6 "Pastoral" (Ludwig van Beethoven) or Symphony no. 9 "From the New World" (Antonin Dvorak)
Two of my favourite long pieces of classical music. Other alternatives would have included a number of works by Elgar (Cello Concerto, Enigma Variations), Tchaikovsky (Violin Concerto, Swan Lake), and probably a whole bunch of other things.
The Pastoral Symphony is just such a happy piece, a such a joy to listen to! The New World Symphony, on the other hand, can in no way be described as happy, but has some wonderful tunes. For example, the first movement conjures for me mental images of early settlers arriving in the New World during a sea storm and looking at the villages of the Iroquois. This is completely anachronistic given that Dvorak was writing several centuries after this, but then again he was a terrible ethnomusicologist so perhaps it is what he had in mind.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel (is the Light of an Oncoming Train) (Half Man Half Biscuit)
I thought I ought perhaps to include something by a slightly out-of-date band. Both of the possible bands, HMHB and the Rolling Stones, are still active, so I just went for my favourite song by one of the two.

Varen or Wedding-Day at Troldhaugen (Edvard Grieg) or Bailero (Joseph Cantaloube)
Varen is a lovely song, while I am determined to fit Wedding-Day at Troldhaugen into my own wedding somehow. (See also). I have no idea what Bailero is about, but it is the most soothing song I have ever encountered.

Mary's Room (Claude-Michel Schoenberg & Scott Alexander)
Les Miserables has nice music, but that's not really why I'm including this. It's more because the Effective Altruism/ Less Wrong community is so fun to be part of, and this song would give me a connection to that (however tenuous). If someone did a well-produced version of Philosopher Kripke then I would be tempted to take that to fill both this slot and the West Side Story slot.

Be Thou My Vision (trad.)
I may not really believe the Bible any more, but you can't tell the story of my life without mentioning the church. This is my favourite hymn, so in it goes. An alternative would be When I Survey The Wondrous Cross.

The book would be Rationality: from AI to Zombies, which taught me how to think; the luxury item would have to be a piano.

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