Friday 10 September 2010

Desert Island Discs

Desert Island Discs. It’s a programme that’s run forever on Radio 4, where people get to select eight discs they’d take with them to a desert island. It makes for a great game, but it’s also a chance to whittle down your music collection to its absolute essentials, to those pieces that touch you in a ways others simply can’t. So I thought I’d do it and surprised myself. No punk, no real world music, although I love them both.

Spem In Alium – Thomas Tallis (Oxford Camerata recording). One of the most sublime pieces of scared vocal music ever penned. At motet for 40 voices in eight choirs of five, it was Tallis’ English response to a Dutch 40-voice motet. It contains all manner of codes and clues within, something for musicologists to puzzle out. The listening pleasure, especially on this version that has plenty of space, is sublime and enveloping. It’s a piece to sink into, one that transcends both space and time.

Solid Air – John Martyn. From the time a girlfriend first played me some John Martyn in 1972 I was a fan and I bought this as soon as it appeared the following year. Written for Nick Drake it’s since become a favourite of the chill out crowd, but its magic is in how restrained everything is. The feel is slightly jazzy, but the folk undertone is ever-present, Martyn’s vocals curling like a tenor sax over the top. Music can transport you, can fill you with a place and this does that for me.

The Ship Song – Nick Cave. I’d always admired Nick Cave’s intensity, but I’d never really been a fan until I heard this at 4.30 one Saturday morning in Seattle while delivering papers (long story). It’s direct, but still wonderfully allegorical, a love song that speaks from the heart with real emotion, never devolving into easy sentiment. That makes it the very best love song I know, and when my heart is full it’s one I want to play.

Man Of The World – Fleetwood Mac. For my money, Peter Green was the best British guitar player of his time, and this disc has heartbreak in just two notes of his solo; he expresses so much with so little. There’s so much of an ache to this song, along with some lovely chord changes, that the melancholy simply flows. At this time Green was on the edge of falling apart, and maybe this was his cry for help, or simply his elegy to the world he was leaving behind as he drifted into some other place.

Clock Of The World – Krista Detor. The newest favourite, but it’s not a choice of the moment. The way all the parts fit together make this an almost perfect song. The lyrics are enigmatic, with the meaning just out of reach, but in some strange way they make absolute sense. Add to that some sublime – yes, even angelic – harmonies and the piece sounds pretty damn perfect. Detor is a remarkable talent, one of the very best to come along in years, never maudlin but with a direct reach to the heartstrings and a sense of art.

Fratres For Violin And Piano – Arvo Pärt. Pärt’s vocal pieces are beautiful, but there’s something about his Fratres that seems to reach back to Bach with their mathematical precision. They sound nothing like Bach, of course, but they range from angular to lyrical in the course of a few minutes. They’re thought provoking and challenging, rather than music to just listen to. Music should involve the listener and draw in the ear and the mind. Ultimately these are disquieting, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Norsk Rheinländer/Plink-Plonk – Haugaard & Høirup. In 2003 I was commissioned to write a piece on Danish music for a magazine and spent some time there, falling in love with not only the music, but the place. I’ve been back pretty much every year since and written extensively about Danish folk music. I’m grateful to have made many friends there, among them the duo of fiddler Harald Haugaard and guitarist/singer Morten Alfred Høirup. They no longer play together, but this fairly early piece is stunning, a gorgeous rendition of a traditional dance piece followed by some harmonic pyrotechnics in the fiddle. It’s a thrilling, highwire piece, a demonstration of virtuosity, but one that never fails to delight me in a childish way (and the subtle guitar accompaniment is lovely). Selecting one piece of Danish music was almost impossible, but this own out.

The Dear Irish Boy – Martin Hayes & Dennis Cahill. Another fiddle/guitar duo, this time Irish and American. Hayes is a rarity among musicians, a person who deconstructs what he plays and takes the listener to the foundation. This slow air is almost like a sonata, and in his hands certainly more complex than a two-part folk tune. It’s majestic in its simplicity, a piece of music to leave the mind and the heart full. Not only is it a reminder that skill doesn’t mean playing fast, it’s music made by the heart, and an extended sublime moment.

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