The BBC’s Radio 4 airs a wonderful programme every week called Desert Island Discs, now the UK’s longest-running radio show. Each week a famous or celebrated person is a guest on the programme and is asked to imagine they are stuck alone on a desert island like Robinson Crusoe, or Tom Hanks in Cast Away. They are then asked the following question: If you could only take eight pieces of music with you to this desert island, and only eight, which would you choose?
All the pieces are played during the show, with a little discussion with the guest preceding each piece, giving them the chance to discuss its significance, both personal and global. That way, the programme is both a music show and a biographical one.
Finally, guests are asked to choose one of the pieces from the eight as their favourite.
Guests are also allowed to take one book with them, in addition to the complete works of William Shakespeare and a religious or philosophical book of their choice. As well as a luxury item (which cannot be a human being, unless, as in John Cleese’s case, they are dead and stuffed; he chose fellow Monty Python member Michael Palin).
Like any fan of the programme, I have spent oodles of time whittling down my own list from, say, 100, to just eight pieces. Difficult stuff, I assure you—even for a bona fide compulsive list-maker such as myself. And my list has been through a number of incarnations over the years, too, but there have been pieces of music that have obstinately refused to go away due to the significance and effect they have had on me.
I went to a Sufi dhikr circle in London a while back. After prayer and the dhikr itself was finished, participants would stand up, joining hands in a circle and singing spiritual odes and songs in honour of the Prophet. Some of these, such as the Qasidat Al-Burda, “The Poem of the Mantle”, composed by Egyptian Sufi Imam Al-Busiri after the Prophet appeared to him in a dream and cured him of paralysis by wrapping him in a mantle, are hauntingly beautiful.
During one ceremony, a surprised non-Muslim neophyte who attended the ceremony (anyone could come to these dhikrs: atheists, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists—members of the Jedi Council, even), asked the sheikh heading the ceremony regarding the permissibility of music in Islam. The sheikh then spoke of the “mysteriousness” of music and of its special spiritual significance. This is no surprise to me; he was an architect by training. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, he of the awesome name and apparently the largest recorded vocabulary among any writer in recorded history (three times as large as Shakespeare’s), described music as “liquid architecture”, and, in turn, described architecture as “frozen music”.
I think some of the most spiritual moments in my own life have involved a CD player (I refuse to move on to MP3s and iPods), some headphones, and a stroll in a park during a nice spring day (complete with ducks; these birds are proof that God has a sense of humour: I once watched a family of ducks, including ducklings, hold up a whole line of cars while they crossed at their leisure, quacking along the way without a care in the world while the guy at the front of the line angrily honked his horn and showered them with expletives).
I’m not going to choose my eight this week, so as to give you a chance to think of your own and to try and get the DNE team to choose theirs; half the fun here is finding out what others listen to and in expanding your musical palate.
I hated hip-hop for example, but a friend of mine turned me on to it using his ample collection of Wu-Tang Clan CDs and DVDs. Listening to the almost surrealist nature of the lyrics, and the eerie piano and Kung Fu movie samples, eventually worked its magic way on me and really turned me on to a musical genre I had previously regarded as crass and insignificant.
Pink Floyd’s rather long instrumental pieces from their experimental Ummagumma album, got me to try out some classical music. I went for a great first introduction to this genre, Beethoven’s Symphony No.9, and was hooked from then-on.
Okay, so your job is to start thinking about your favourite pieces. Go on the website and look up the list of cast aways on there to give you inspiration, and get started with your own list. You can tweet or email them to me, including discussing the significance of the pieces if you like, and I will make sure to include the most interesting ones in next week’s column along with my own.