Sunday, 6 March 2016

Desert island discs

I started thinking about my choices for this program recently. I recall that I did the exact same post a number of years ago, but I have changed my choices since then. This is a very indulgent thing to do - but this is my blog, where anything goes, so who cares?

The premise of this program is that you choose eight pieces of music, one book and one luxury item to take with you to a desert island.

1. Ich Ruf zu dir Herr Jesu Christ (Piano Version) - J. S. Bach

Bach has now become my favourite composer. I like his music very much because 1) It has a mystical quality that's very similar to a lot of religious art - i.e. cathedrals and Renaissance painting - where your senses are disoriented and you feel overcome by something larger than yourself. 2) The counterpoint, where several layers of music play at the same time, is especially interesting to listen to. It's fascinating to listen how the musical voices interact with one another and how they are resolved. 3) The seemingly endless treasures you encounter the further you dig into his body of work. He was an extremely prolific composer, yet very little of what he wrote is uninteresting to me.

Bach never wrote music for the piano - it didn't exist during his lifetime. He wrote for the harpsichord instead. I especially like the way a lot of his pieces sound on the piano. My favourite of these arrangements would be 'Ich Ruf zu dir Herr Jesu Christ.' I like the performance by Alfred Brendel, a brilliant pianist, the most.

2. 'Death and the Maiden' String Quartet No. 14  in D Minor by Franz Schubert

I like Schubert for the same reason that many people listen to music - he writes beautiful melodies and his music is very pleasant to listen to. I am especially fond of string quartets as a whole and this is quite likely the most well-known quartet piece ever written. It is a 'programmatic' piece, meaning that it has an accompanying story attached to it.

Schubert was one of the early 'Romantic' composers. To put it simply, the movement in music was largely interested in 'emotion.' This piece does indeed stir the emotions quite a lot. As the piece progresses, it becomes more exalted. Schubert wrote astonishingly beautiful melodies, but it's also very interesting to hear how he harmonises the voices.

3. String Quartet No. 4 by Bela Bartok

Bartok is my favourite composer after Bach. Although his music is very dissonant, it's still melodic and it is tonal - though it does shift across many keys during the course of a single piece. What I like about modern music is that I do hear melody in a lot of it, but it's a lot more angular. There is a lot of strangeness and beauty to that. Bartok drew from Hungarian folk melodies and transformed them into visceral modern classical pieces. In this piece, the five movements 'mirror' each other. The first and fifth movements are related, the second and fourth movments are related and the third movement is a quiet interlude. Like a lot of other modern music, Bartok was interested in ryhthm. In this piece, the melodies are played almost rhythmically.

4. Clocks and Clouds by Gyorgy Ligeti

Post-war music was considerably more abstract than the music that preceded it. Ligeti, another Hungarian, is one of the more approachable ones. His music employed 'micropolyphony,' which involved many individual voices playing simultaneously. This created large tone clusters, a large homegenous sound constituting many individual parts.

This piece is particularly impressive. Unlike a lot of other modern music, it sounds somewhat mellifluent. It is dream-like and strange. It has a disorienting effect, much in the same way that a lot of Bach's music affects my senses. I am fond of getting drunk whilst listening to music - Ligeti is one of my main choices for such occasions, alongside Bach.

5. Autumn's Child by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band

I have a strong emotional attachment to Beefheart's music. I have been listening to his stuff for twelve years now. This song is more 'straightforward' than a lot of his other stuff. It's somewhat mawkish, even. I still find the 4/4 section very moving - and very evocative. You have Beefheart's vocal about a past encounter, the chorus sings about 'go back four years' ago and finally you have the eerie theremin to boot. This being Beefheart, the more 'striaght' sections get interrupted by unusual time signatures. This really is a truly overpowering song.

6. British Grenadiers - Gross Chapel by The Fall

The Fall are my favourite rock act, alongside Beefheart. Whereas a lot of their output is somewhat blithe, this track is a lot darker. I have always thought that the album this is from, Bend Sinister, is one of their best and very underrated. The Fall are from the post-punk era. This meant that consumers who were not technically proficient realised that they could make music. This led to very unorthodox and interesting results. These bands were listening to a lot of interesting bands, such as Beefheart. Mark E. Smith hardly ever sings; he recites. His lyrics are very abstract and very embittered. On paper, they are baffling, but they are mesmerising on record.

7. Naima by John Coltrane

Jazz is easily one of my favourite genres - it's possibly my favourite genre alongside classical. I fondly remember being a lazy 15-year-old who would sit in his room all day listening to jazz records. I was a terrible student back then!

'Naima' is such a wonderful tune. This tune is just so life-affirming and soothing. I feel infinitely better every time I give it another spin. Coltrane's virtuosic technique takes me to the most wonderful places.

8. Flamenco Sketches by Miles Davis

Everything about the record Kind of Blue is just perfect. Every note is in the right place. There are so many tracks I could choose from Davis' discography, but I would have to go for this one. Again, it's a very soothing and uplifiting piece. I love how Miles' stamp is firmly indented in all of his music, even the cheesy 80s synth stuff.

This is the first jazz record I listened to. It's a record a lot of people start with - it's a great portal. Finally, I'll just end by saying how much I regretted leaving Ornette Coleman's 'Lonely Woman' out from this list.

Book: Fictions - Jorge Luis Borges

I thought that I would chose a book that I can read many times. Borges' stories are something you keep returning to and something that you find surprising every time you re-read. His stories are so intertextual that, in many ways, you are familarising yourself with literature culled from many centuries. So this is more than  one book in many ways.

Luxury item: A typewriter with a lifetime supply of ribbons and paper.

I would want to be able to write in this island. Typewriters are cumbersome, but then computers are too distracting. I prefer to type when writing stuff - I am not a pen-and-paper person.

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