Desert Island Discs is one of those programmes that irritates me more often than it delights me, but sometimes, delight me it does, and that’s why I continue to listen to it. Often the interviewees are thoroughly unmusical, sometimes they are extremely boring and occasionally they are self important prats. More often than not though, it’s a case of ’vaguely interesting person chooses vaguely uninteresting music’ - there’s an awful lot of Bob Dylan and Puccini…But once in a while someone chooses something that I love – which always gets my attention, and once in a while somebody chooses something that I’ve never heard before but end up loving.
I first identified one of the Bach cello suites when Tom Courtenay chose it about forty years ago. I say identified because I’d heard the piece before and had been entranced by it. There is a scene in Jazz On A Summer’s Day (see Folk me sideways for more about this film) when the camera cuts back and forth between shots of the America’s Cup races taking place off of Newport, Rhode Island, and Fred Katz, cellist with the Chico Hamilton Quintet, practising in his room. At the time I assumed that Katz was improvising (albeit brilliantly), but the music stuck in my mind and stayed with me until Tom chose it and the light dawned. I subsequently bought the Pablo Casals recording of the complete Bach Cello Suites and it has remained a favourite ever since. Much to my surprise I found this clip of Casals playing part of Suite No 1 around 1953
Quite a few years later I was listening to the adventurer and writer Tim Severin’s choice. He had, amongst other things, emulated one of the Celtic saint’s legendary crossing of the Atlantic ocean in a leather boat, and had written a book about it. One of Severin’s selections was a jig called Water Under The Keel, which was from an orchestral suite for Uillean pipes and orchestra by the composer Shaun Davey. This immediately grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and gave me a damn good shaking and I was forced to go out and by the record of The Brendan Voyage – which was the title both of the suite and of the book that inspired it The piper on this was Liam O'Flynn, who was one of the founder members of the Irish group Planxty, one of the most innovative and influential musical units that Ireland had ever seen. The 'embedding feature for this YouTube clip of an extract from the piece has been disabled but you can see it by clicking here.
In 2004 my attention was grabbed again when the ‘death row’ lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith chose the forty part motet Spem In Alium by Thomas Tallis as one of his eight records. Again I marvelled at a sound, and couldn’t wait to buy a recording so as to hear that glorious noise on my Quad speakers instead of on the bathroom radio. (I tend to take a late shower on a Sunday.) Here is a clip of the work, performed by The Tallis Scholars.
I’m sure that I’m not alone in occasionally fantasising about being on the programme, and I’ve often started to compile my own eight records. I say ‘started’ because no matter how I try, I can never finish the list because there are so many great pieces of music that I just couldn’t do without. In fact if I’m ever invited on to the programme I shan’t take any music with me at all. I’ll choose a gun as my luxury and shoot myself as soon as I land, because the prospect of living for years with only eight records is just too awful to contemplate…