These days when you can download all sorts of music into an iPod and burn your own CDs, it's odd to think of taking one prerecorded CD to a desert island. But the spirit of the question is one of restricting choices, maybe deciding between music you listen to frequently and the music that you need. On a car trip, when I'm loading five CDs into the player, Monk often shows up and Boccherini. The trouble is, I don't have one favorite, I have lots. I want to hear Big Bill Broonzy, and I want to hear Joshua Bell. I'm not an opera fan, and I don't get excited about rock, but I perk up when Alison Krauss is on the radio as often as I do when it's Yo-Yo Ma.
When I was in graduate school, Bob Z., who I'd known since high school, always answered "Who's your favorite composer?" with this: "When I'm listening to Bach, Bach is my favorite composer, and when I'm listening to Mozart, Mozart is my favorite composer, and when I'm listening to Beethoven, Beethoven is my favorite composer. And when I'm not listening to anyone, Beethoven is my favorite composer." I understand that, though I'd be tempted to put in Bach.
When I first heard Glen Gould play the Goldberg Variations I was in college. The harpsichord was coming back. Though I'd begun to like baroque music, keyboard works just seemed to me "up-and-down" streams of notes, and when on the harpsichord, clattering, jangling strings. And then I heard Gould's recordings. No harpsichord, but more important: melodies, lines of music, several at the same time that I could hear, phrases with breaths that separated them. Listening to Gould play Bach was going to places, not countries, but places all the same, that were, if you applied yourself, intelligible and coherent. Listening made me tired, but it was possible to get to these places and keep in them as long as the music played and I attended to it.
It seems to me now learning that was a defining experience. I can relive it by listening to those recordings. At the same time, I am reminded how I have changed, how I was changed by returning to those spaces that Bach, through Gould, constructs and dismantles.
This is the place to stop. But I can't. There are too many recordings I want to take -- they're all magic in being able to conjure up the past or, rather, my youth. I remember, in that youth, talking with a woman 20 years older than I was who said, "Tell me your favorite jazz musician and I'll tell you how old you are." Those were days people like us had favorite jazz musicians, in New York City, anyway. She thought you chose some musician who was playing when you were in your early 20s, because that's when you went to hear them, and you stopped going out, stopped keeping up later. It was how your taste got fixed, how you got stuck in your rut. The world after that was filled with people you'd never heard of, and they all sounded "derivative." If you loved Coleman Hawkins, you were in your 20s in the '30s; if Lester Young was your man, it was the '40s, and Sonny Rollins fans were younger still.
She needed to correct her theory to include all the music first heard in your 20s -- not just jazz, not just live. When I was in college, after my girlfriend visited I would play one of the five records I had over and over again; thus Faure's Requiem is a reminder of lost love for me. And I recall the Five-Spot in NY where I hung out to hear Monk play as well as the apartment of friends where I first heard Flatt and Scruggs. A little later, when I was a continent away in rural Washington State and my mid-20s -- I had a protracted youth -- I found records of Wade Ward and Tampa Red.
No matter what I listen to now, part of it is hooks into my youth. I got to know more Mozart, more Brahms, Charlie Patton and Django Reinhart and Dmitri Shostakovich -- some of that in my 30s, some later still. Moving from my 20s into middle age has gotten confused for me. Times become more and more "the past" -- remote, faded, and soft-edged.
Fortunately, there's no sense that I'd be abandoning, dooming any music I left behind -- saving one child, while rejecting others. All the music would remain safe. It's only I who would be at risk. Which might be just the reason to go off to the desert island. One of my recurrent fantasies is of starting over. In the new place no one knows who you are, has any expectations concerning a you that can't be reversed; you can become someone with no history. It's never true. I always revert more to character than I intend. But when I traveled last and lived abroad for several months, for the first time I took no music. I had a radio, but never found a station that appealed to me. I did go to concerts of jazz and classical and regional music that looked interesting, though I could only pick from what was offered, and was restricted by times and prices. I went frequently.
If the desert island had no concert hall, no radio, I would not want to do without music. I'd have to bring something. As I write, I'm inclined to avoid something from my past. Perhaps I'd take the music of the area or, failing that, some music I'd never heard. It might prove wonderful, and it might prove disappointing. The chance of "irrecoverable error" doesn't make you listen better, only harder.