stranded on a desert island (#1)

A new blog series in which a musician shares which three pieces they would choose to listen to, if they were hypothetically stranded on an island and could only listen to those three pieces for the rest of their life. Want to contribute? Contact me here!

This week’s contributor is Eric Tran, a fellow graduate student and a pianist friend who has an inspiring enthusiasm for music and also has the distinction of being both a composer and a talented performer. Without further ado:

Three pieces on a desert island.

This challenge is the worst. Just three pieces? On a desert island? Not even a *dessert* island? Both ways I’m sure to die quickly, but here I would be unable have my creme brûlée… nor would I be able to float to safety on a giant donut (would eat accidentally) or a raft of a million marshmallows tied together with twizzlers (would not eat).

OK, enough of the food fantasies. I will also assume that I would break the conditions of the challenge by selecting pieces that by nature would radically change – else I would select an improvisation. 😛

Here we go – three pieces accompanied by brief notes with my thoughts and experiences:

Bach – Cantata BWV 82/82a “Ich habe genug”

English: “I have enough”.

There are pieces in this world that are so beautiful, it almost hurts to listen to-

If I must have only three pieces, one of them must be Bach. Bach often has this effect on me: upon listening to a piece, listening to it again gives me an even more potent experience.

“Ich habe genug” is one of the most gut-wrenching cantatas – it gets me every single time. From the resigned, opening aria, to the peaceful “Schlummert ein” – this cantata is a masterpiece and rightfully one of the most performed and recorded. The very words lend themselves to the desert island challenge – “I have enough”, “Sleep, my weary eyes”, and “I am looking forward to my death” (that escalated quickly!).

Fauré – Requiem Op. 48

“People have said my Requiem did not express the terror of death; someone called it a lullaby of death. But that’s the way I perceive death: as a happy release, an aspiration to the happiness of beyond rather than a grievous passage” – Gabriel Fauré

This deeply moving work gives to me the impression of timelessness through (paradoxically) an inevitable journey from life to afterlife. It’s the little things that get me: the Introit and Kyrie texts being set to the same cradling music, the inclusion of the transparent and transcendent Pie Jesu with the exclusion of the full Dies Irae, the striking, exact repetition of a minute-long melody with the full chorus in unison in the Libera Me- the power of a group as one, asking for deliverance…

Chopin – Preludes Op. 28

The Chopin Preludes hold a special place for me – after all, the piano is my preferred instrument, and Chopin is my favorite composer. I say this at the same time as acknowledging the genius of composers such as Bach and Ravel. To be sure, these are finer composers in their construction of pieces, compositional skill, and orchestration. However, to make an analogy – just because there may be someone wealthier, nicer, or more beautiful, does not mean that your best friend – or beloved – need be the person who has the most of all of these traits. I’ve known the music of Chopin since I was a small child, and so far it has been a source of great joy, comfort, and catharsis through my life.

Each prelude is a microcosm – one could be an enraptured anticipation, like repeatedly opening the front door to check and see if your friend has arrived yet. Another might be the feeling you get when a place, smell, sound, or careless phrase brings on an uninvited rush of nostalgia. Here are 24 little worlds… a boat song in Venice, a passing butterfly, an erupting Vesuvius, a raindrop…

There’s one prelude I want to highlight: Prelude #17 in A-flat Major. To me, it’s the story of an entire human life within the span of three and half minutes. It begins with A-flat major, but in the 2nd inversion – the inversion your theory professor says to never start or end a piece with due to its instability.

Chopin, of course, does exactly that – he both begins and ends the piece on this floating, rootless chord.

This piece is a triptych depicting innocent childhood, unbridled adulthood, and meditative old age. The theme appears three times – in the beginning in its purest form, in the middle as the most powerful and fully-fledged, and in the end as quiet and reflective. Between each is a transition section – like a time of growth, struggle and self-discovery.

When the theme is stated in the end – it is spoken softly and with great dignity. Bells ring out from the bottom of the keyboard as memories of a life continue to play on. This is someone who knows the end is coming and accepts it with grace. As the last bell tolls, the piece fades out on that same, repeated, floating chord – slipping off into the ether in just the way it came into being, as if all the time spent on earth was a momentary diversion spent against entropy, merely borrowed from dust, and at last returning to its source.

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