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We’re approaching a full year of pandemic lockdown, barely leaving the house except to restock the larder. But at least the house is full of books, music and DVDs. It would take more than a single year to run out. 

But it puts me in mind of the old cliche: What book would you take to a desert island? It’s a silly question, really. If you are stranded on a desert island, a source of fresh water is a need infinitely more immediate than a good read. But even if we take it as simply a trope, the answers people give are seldom very satisfying. Most list a book they enjoy, which is fine, except that you can only read most of those books once, maybe twice, before they grow stale. 

No, the trick is to find a book that can reward multiple re-readings. And the same for “desert island music” or “desert island movies” (ignoring the problem of finding a DVD player in the middle of the Pacific, or the electrical outlet to plug it into.) Just picking favorites is a sucker’s game. How long would it take before listening to Stairway to Heaven for the hundredth or thousandth time to reduce you to a gibbering idiot? 

So, I set to make a list of things that could reward many traversals. This is, of course, a game and is utterly meaningless — but then most fun is. I task each of you to find a list of your own of things you could stand listening to, re-reading, or re-watching for endless times. I’m going to present my choices as they would an awards show: nominees and winners. 

Desert Island book

The sign of any good book is its re-readability. But even some of the best have just so much to offer. Madame Bovary is a great book, but once you’ve unwrapped its meaning, you are finished — unless you can read it in French and can unpack its verbal brilliance. I’ve seen many desert-island lists that offer things like Harry Potter books or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. And no knock on them as good reads, they aren’t books you can marry for the long haul. 

My nominees for Desert Island Book are:

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. This may be the best novel I have ever read, full of people who are so real they seem not to be characters in a book, but transcriptions of life. I am in awe of this book. 

Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. This counts as my favorite book, and I have indeed re-read it many times — at least I’ve re-read the opening chapter, “Loomings,” scores of times. It was my original problem with the book. I loved Melville’s way with words so much, that each time I picked up the book, I’d start from the beginning, which made it a very long time before I ever actually finished the thing. When I pick it up again, I’ll start with “Call me Ishmael.” Again. 

Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. This is the funniest book I’ve ever read (pace P.G. Wodehouse), but funny books tend not to outlive their punchlines. You can only tell a joke once to the same audience. But Tristram Shandy isn’t a joke book, and its inhabitants are so ridiculously human and its wordplay so trippingly choreographed, that it never wears out for me. 

À la recherche du temps perdu, by Marcel Proust. This seems like the perfect choice for the desert island. First, it is exceedingly long — seven volumes and more than 4,000 pages. Second, it is filled with memorable people and discursive episodes that never seem to come to a final conclusion. It goes on. And on. The biggest problem with it, in English, is to find a decent translation that isn’t too Victorian sounding and stuffy, or too modern and chatty. 

Ulysses, by James Joyce. This is a book that not only can stand a re-reading, it requires it. No one can get it all in one go-through. Joyce’s prose, in those chapters that aren’t purposely difficult, is the most perfect prose I know in the English language. Its cadence is musical, its word-choice precise, its flavor yummy. And the difficult chapters — you know who you are — take parsing like so many physics formulae and can keep you fully occupied while you wait for a passing steamship. 

And the award goes to:

Ulysses. It wins because it is in English to begin with. You can never be sure with Tolstoy or Proust, that you are getting what is in the original. They are always at a remove. Ulysses is your own tongue, taken to its stretching point. I can’t imagine, say, reading it in a French translation, or in Mandarin. It is not transmutable. And it can stand a lifetime of re-reading without ever being sucked dry. 

Desert Island Music

This is the category that most exposes the problem. For most people, music means song, and no three-minute ditty can wear long enough to keep you going under the coconut tree. This isn’t a place for your favorite tune. This then requires something like classical music. But even most classical music can’t take the over-and-over again requirements of the island isolation. The obvious choice would be Beethoven’s Ninth, but really, you can only listen on special occasions. Over and over would be torture. 

My nominees for Desert Island Music are:

 —Quartet in C-minor, op. 131, by Ludwig van Beethoven. Really, any of the late quartets. But this is music so profound and so emotional that any barrier between the highest thought and deepest emotion is erased. They are the same thing. The C-minor quartet has six movements and each is distinct and each is a pool to dive deeply into. 

—The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, by Johann Sebastian Bach. Thirty variations on a simple sarabande tune, arranged with a complex cleverness hard to credit. This is music to last a lifetime. Indeed, it was the first thing that pianist Glenn Gould ever recorded and the last thing. To paraphrase Sam Johnson, “To tire of the Goldbergs is to tire of the world.” 

—Symphony No. 3 by Gustav Mahler. The composer said a symphony “should contain the world,” and no work more completely attempts this than Mahler’s Third, with a first movement that is longer than most full Haydn symphonies (“Pan Awakes: Summer Marches In”) and ends with an adagio just as long, which is built from a theme borrowed from Beethoven’s final string quartet and utters “What Love Tells Me.” I cannot hear the work without disintegrating into a puddle. 

—The Passion According to St. Matthew, BWV 244, by Johann Sebastian Bach. This is the human condition in sound. All of it. No music I know of is more profound nor more emotionally direct. It lasts for nearly three hours and includes not only all the world, but heaven and hell, too. From the opening chorus, with three choirs and two orchestras, to the final “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder,” which expresses infinite sorrow, this is music that shoots directly into the psyche and soul. It cannot be worn out. 

—24 Preludes and Fugues, op. 87, by Dmitri Shostakovich. I considered Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, but I already have Bach down twice. He is the obvious choice for desert island music, so rich is his music, but I also think of Shostakovich’s version, which is just as varied both technically and emotionally. I could live with this for a very long time. 

And the winner is: 

St. Matthew Passion. This is so all-encompassing, so complex technically, so disturbing emotionally, that I cannot bear to give it up. I am not religious and the doctrinal aspects of the story mean nothing to me, but the metaphorical import is overwhelming. This is what it means to be human. And what music!

Desert Island Film

Of course, the film you want on a desert island is a documentary about how to get off a desert island. And if you need a film you can watch over and over, I’ve proved already I can do that with the 1933 King Kong. I’ve watched it a thousand times since I was four years old. But that is not the kind of thing I mean, not what can sustain you through multiple dives into a film’s interior.

My nominees for Best Desert Island Film are: 

Rules of the Game, directed by Jean Renoir. La Règle du Jeu (1939), which many critics have called the best movie ever made, is certainly the most human, humane and forgiving film ever, while at the same time being satirical and biting about human foible and hypocrisy. Yes, it’s in French, with subtitles.

La Dolce Vita, directed by Federico Fellini. The great 1960 Italian classic of the Roman “sweet life” in the postwar years shows us Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) as he negotiates personal relationships, professional crises and spiritual doldrums. The meaning of the movie has been debated for 40 years. It has been seen as anti-Catholic and as a reactionary embrace of religion. It has been seen as an angry critique of modern life, but also a celebration of it. It has been called pornography, and also one of the most moral movies ever made. It’s rich enough to embrace many meanings. Fellini said he was not a judge, “but rather an accomplice.”

Andrei Rublev, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. If La Dolce Vita was ambiguous, Andrei Rublev is close to impenetrable. There is no slower film, outside Andy Warhol’s 8-hour-long Empire State Building. It is not so much a story as a dream, full of significance, but not explainable meaning. It is so unutterably beautiful it simply doesn’t matter what is happening on screen.  I love this film. I don’t mean enjoy, I mean love. 

Fanny and Alexander, directed by Ingmar Bergman. Some films are art, some are great stories, some are deeply understanding. Fanny and Alexander is all three. It exists in multiple versions — a single one for movie houses at 188 minutes and a 312 minute version originally intended as a TV miniseries. I choose the longer version for my desert island. This is Bergman at his most human, least artsy and symbolic. It can engulf you. 

Dekalog, directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski. Polish director Kieślowski made this 10-part film on the Ten Commandments, although not in any literal way. Each film is directed in a different style, and none is religious. The two best concern “Thou shalt not kill” and “not commit adultery,” Your heart will be wrenched from your chest and stomped upon. 

And my choice is:

Rules of the Game. I cannot count the number of times I have watched this film. Not as many as King Kong, I guess, but close. And I know from experience it can hold up under uncounted viewings. There is plenty to enjoy from a filmmaking point of view, just as there is in Citizen Kane, but it is also a profoundly forgiving film — the single most important quality in a human life. 

Bonus 

I have a few more categories, that I’ll suggest in abbreviated form. There you are on the desert island with a bookshelf and a DVD player. You can add a desert island opera, a desert island epic poem, a desert island play. 

Opera

An art form that puts it all together in one package, opera would be an excellent way to spend your island time. But again, we have to consider which opera can stand multiple viewings, that has multiple meanings or interpretations. We all love La Boheme, but there is only so much there under the hood. And Wagner would just wear us out. We are down to Mozart. The Marriage of Figaro is a perfect choice, but I’m going with my favorite: 

Don Giovanni, by W.A. Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte. Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy? Is it a dramedy? Whatever it is, it is filled with real people doing things real people do (aside from talking to statues and falling into hell, that is) and with some of the best music Mozart ever wrote. Fin ch’han dal vino

Epic poem

There is not a wide field to choose from, and how can you pick among the Iliad, the Odyssey, Dante’s Commedia, or Milton’s Paradise Lost? (Notice, I did not include Vergil. Dull stuff). Nor can I pick an Icelandic saga or a Medieval droner, like Parzival or the Nibelungenlied. I’ve tried slogging my way through Tasso and Ariosto, but get dragged down in slow motion. There is just one for me, and I re-read it every year: 

The Iliad, by Homer. How can the first entry in the Western canon still be the best? Nothing beats Homer. His imagination is immense, from the largest cosmic scene to the fingernail of a flea, it is all encompassing, and moves with the instantaneity of movie cutting from the one to the other. Actually, if I had to leave behind novel, music, film and everything else, and had only one companion with me, it would be the Iliad. 

Live theater

What do you mean “live theater?” We’re on a desert island. But, if I can imagine a DVD player and an electric socket on the bare sand, I can imagine a stage play. This is all theoretical anyway, remember? 

Angels in America, by Tony Kushner. Without doubt the greatest thing I’ve ever seen on the live stage is the original New York production of Angels in America — both parts. It is overwhelming, and will demonstrate to anyone who hasn’t had the experience yet, that live theater is unmatchable by seeing the same thing on PBS Live From Lincoln Center or even in Mike Nichols’ filmed version. Wow. And I’ve seen some great Shakespeare live, even by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Angels rules. 

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And so, we’ve turned an isolated desert island into a library, concert hall, movie house, opera house and legitimate stage. Far from being solitary, we’re crowded. Pandemic be damned.

klemperer 6I am listening as I write this to Bach’s Mass in B-minor, in a version recorded in 1967 by the New Philharmonia Orchestra and BBC Chorus conducted by Otto Klemperer. I am blown away. rifkin cd cover

Not just at the music, which I know well, and have nearly a dozen recordings of, from Joshua Rifkin’s spare-outline version, with one singer per part, to the more full-blooded Robert Shaw version with his chorale and orchestra, to the zippy race-through by John Eliot Gardiner. Each is an event in its way — it is hard to make Bach’s music anything but beautiful and profound.

But Klemperer brings something else to the performance. You hear it with the first notes, the solemn adagio opening Kyrie. This is no period-instrument version, thin and edgy. This is the full power of Milton’s heaven resounding. You know this is not a collection of tunes, but rather a calling-into-being of the entire universe. One is reminded of the opening of the King James Genesis. This is serious music.

kyrie adagio

Since this recording, a prejudice has developed against grandeur: The authentic-instrument, period-practice movement took hold. One year after Klemperer’s recording, Nikolaus Harnoncourt released his stripped-down, lean and brisk period performance. Since then only a very few have ventured to record the music with a symphony orchestra and large chorus. Instead, we have chamber versions, and even smaller ones, such as Rifkin’s. I am not here to complain about them: Many are beautiful and thoughtful. And I would not want to do without Gardiner’s version. But in the quest for authenticity, something has been lost: In the search for “what Bach actually heard” using instruments of his time, we have given up what Bach meant.

This raises the question of “intent.” Period advocates measure intent by musicological and historical standards: Bach’s brass players had no valves, strings were gut, bows were slack, pitch was lower. All these things can be documented. But intent is more than that. Bach intended to create the glories of the heavens on earth. And one doubts Gabriel’s singers and instrumentalists were bound by the constraints of period technology. Bach intended his music to be as grand has possible. If what was possible in his age was limited, that should not restrict us to 18th century limitations.

Klemperer was famous for what has charitably been called “granitic” performances of Beethoven and Mozart: His slow tempos and careful orchestral balance underline the monumental structure of the music. If rhythmically driven or lyrically pretty music is what you seek, look elsewhere. Klemperer makes you see the music as something sculptural, complete from all angles and subject to minute scrutiny. This is certainly not to everyone’s taste, and when it comes to Beethoven symphonies or Mozart operas, Klemperer is a world I wish to enter only periodically, as a sort of reminder that not everything is Riccardo Chailly or Leonard Bernstein. Klemperer does not seem interested in our pleasure, and even less with our attention spans. This is serious music and he intends you to take it like that: It may be work, but you are better off for it in the long run.cd cover 2

But when it comes to Bach — and here we must mention also his monumental recording of the St. Matthew Passion — this approach gives us a weight and profundity that elevates the music. Instead of using his musicality to discover what Bach wrote, he uses Bach to discover the vastness and emotional depth of Creation. Bach is not the end, but the tool.

Now, for many current music lovers, this is a distortion of what Bach meant. And for many, this can come off like grandiosity. Expectations are lower these days: We find solemnity and profundity suspect. And Postmodern culture looks for art to be about art, about culture, and not about Providence or our place in the cosmos. We wish to remain modest about such things. “About what we cannot speak we must remain silent.”

The historical-performance people have this take on the music. Bach used dance movements, they tell us, and so the music should dance. They hit bar-lines like blacksmiths, beating out the rhythm, as if every movement were a Landler, OOM-pa-pa, OOM-pa-pa. They break phrases up into choppy bits, claiming scholarship for authority. And I won’t even mention the flat, vibrato-less performance and often-squeaky 18th century instruments. The results become not music, but a museum display.

I don’t dispute that we may learn something about how music was performed 250 years ago and I don’t dispute such knowledge can be important and interesting. But I will continue to dispute this is music. This is academia invading the concert halls. And it comes off as interesting as academic prose. And who but a scholar wants to read a dissertation?

So, Klemperer uses the music to find a place in the cosmos, and if the cosmos is vast, so the music expatiates. It fills the space of the heavens. If it takes three days for an astronaut to reach even our closest neighbor, the moon, then so what if it takes the conductor 13 minutes to span the Kyrie. Yes, we could get there faster if we up the tempo, but we lose the metaphor in doing so.

It should also be noted that Klemperer has some of the best soloists available at the time: Janet Baker, Nicolai Gedda, Hermann Prey and others. Full-throated singers who can rise above a full orchestra. klemperer caricature

One looks back at the history of art, music and culture and sees the pulse, diastolic and systolic, changing from an era that sees itself examining itself and human societies to one that looks for humanity’s place in the universe. We often call these impulses “classical” and “romantic,” but these terms are quite gross. The realities are more subtle. But think of Alexander Pope and compare him with Byron, for instance. Or compare Gluck with Wagner. We are in a slack period, uncertain about insisting on great themes, large statements, universal truths. In fact, we are likely to say there are no universal truths. The violent, murderous 20th century we lived through, full of ideologies and dogmas — all claiming to be universal truths — taught us to be more humble. Universal truths can be genocidal.

So, we have drawn back, like turtles into our shells, and claim that since a belief in truth can be bloody, therefore, there must be no truth. We have become a generation of Pontius Pilates. This makes emotional and historical sense, but it does not follow logically.

There is at least one universal truth, I believe, that is impossible to deny: We will all die. Death is universal. And if our own extinction is inevitable, so is its corollary: Everyone we love will die; everyone we love will leave us. Loss is a universal human experience.

If we start from first principles — and death and loss count as just that — perhaps there are inferences we can draw from these axioms. And even if some of them are not universal, they may still be widely prevalent among human cultures. Of course, we want to tread lightly with these. Stalin, Franco, Hitler, Pol Pot, Osama bin Laden may still give us pause. But we should not be deterred from seeking these inferences from first principles. Art that merely looks at art seems pasty-faced and weasely compared with the larger attempts of artists such as Michelangelo, Tolstoy, Homer, Beethoven — and Bach.

So, I say, open up the floodgates, let the dam overflow, give Klemperer his head and let it all fill us up, fill up that empty space we all feel, the community of humanity in our loss, our finality, our upward vision into the starry night for the immensity of creation.

And I say this as an atheist. Bach may be using the Catholic liturgy, but we don’t need to be Catholic to feel the power of the universe behind his notes. Bach, himself, wasn’t Catholic. His religion did not use the full Mass. But that didn’t stop him from filling out the words, in a language he did not speak, with counterpoint and harmony that reflects that immensity.

So, I don’t wish my Bach shrunk down to human size; I want my Bach to be a Mount Palomar opening into the cosmos.

The Mass has played out in the time it took me to write this short note. Now, I think I am ready to change the CD and begin the Matthew Passion. Open heavens, let me see into you.