I have invented a new game called Buxtehudethunkit that anyone with an internet connection can play. Like Googlewhack, where the purpose is to enter two search terms into Google that would yield only one result, Buxtehudethunkit is a way of interrogating  the BBC’s archive of Desert Island Discs to tell you something of the limits of celebrity taste. Though it might look like it, I did not do this to grandstand on the lesser aesthetics of the great and the good. They’re a mixed bunch, I know. In fact, when reflecting one’s own interests, these programmes can turn into a chastisement, depending on who you happen to share a favourite with. And my own musical taste increasingly turns out to be #nothingtowritehomeabout.

But even if you don’t think much of your own taste, or its past trajectory, there is the quote from Hermann Hesse, for which I’m obliged to the inspirational blog  On an Overgrown Path:-

If you want to know the condition of a nation, then listen to its music.”

The Desert Island Database and the accompanying national poll of favourites ostensibly allow this. Though I’m still not sure. I suppose with my single reference game I’m fishing here in the pool of probability among the Law of Small Numbers. And without a licence. Statisticians can dismiss it as the musical equivalent of homeopathy: so dilute as to be entirely unrepresentative. If the occurrence is singular, that could be entirely random. Furthermore, there is a remote possibility, because Desert Island Disc-ers are allowed eight choices, that the database might contain no reference to a piece of music that absolutely every participant would list as their Number 9, and probably does in some universe somewhere.

Set against any cultural pessimism concerning contemporary tastes, the test of time is said to have some mathematical, evolution-style validity to it. I guess this is because artistic success is a kind of complex system. Over time, it must somehow map to a constantly changing environment, so durability implies fitness. But this can go through some twists and turns. The flame can also go out, or at least appear to. Given his current prominence, how did that happen to Vivaldi? It is often cited that his music was forgotten from his death in poverty in 1741 until his revival in the 1930s, despite the enduring popularity of his pizza recipe.

So, one day I was idly trying to get a feel for the influence on the popular culture of Bill Nelson, or more specifically his 1970s art-rock band Be-Bop Deluxe, and the BBC had just put up its Desert Island Discs database where over 70 years of programmes of interviewees’ choices now lie.  Test-of-time-wise, Desert Island Discs is fit: it is the longest running radio show, ever.

I typed in first “Be-Bop Deluxe” then, less hopefully “Bill Nelson”. Nul points. Both times.  For good measure, but with slightly more expectation of success, I went off at a tangent and tried the recently-departed Gil Scott-Heron, thinking that a man described variously as the black Bob Dylan and godfather of rap/hip-hop might have some famous fans by now.  Encore, nul points.

To repeat: I was not trying to be clever. If there were any accounting for taste, given what has been spent on my musical education I’d be in foreclosure by now.

Be-Bop Deluxe were just a bit before my time, and only came to mind when I was checking  Bill Nelson’s back-story a little while ago. Nelson himself was regarded as one of the best guitarists of the ’70s, and he is now a cult figure, with his own sometimes annual festival, endorsed by major guitar manufacturers. So I thought there was a chance of some rock star acknowledgement somewhere, or perhaps that some baby-boomer film director or head of an arts body (who was a student in the ’70s) would have picked up on him.

After the disbandment of Be-Bop Deluxe, Nelson reappeared in my mid-teens with a song called Do You Dream In Colour? which reached #52 in the UK Singles Chart.  Back then, I occasionally mused on matters of cognition, and colour perception was part of it. I bought the ensuing album Quit Dreaming and Get on the Beam and got my hair cut short, as Bill Nelson’s appeared on the inner sleeve: an action my teachers, not conscious of the causation, considered a mark of maturity. I started sporting my inherited steel-toe-capped work boots, worn for winter paper rounds, as a fashion statement. The paper profits bought the Telecaster, remember.

But I’ve digressed, into overgrown path-dependence.

Having so far yielded nothing from the Desert Island Database, I felt obliged for a few minutes to keep hitting it in search of something I naïvely held to be culturally cuspal.  I then went classical and I tried Alkan, as in Charles-Valentin, Chopin‘s neighbour in Paris. Alkan classifies as a broken thing for curious study, which I’ll have to defer to another post; there are myths and facts about him which I have not fully disentangled in the record, so am apt to mislead.  Did he really die because a wall of book-shelving  fell on him, as he reached up high for a copy of the Talmud? Alkan came into the house a year ago via the piano tuner.  On his first visit, he (the tuner that is) pulled three CDs from his knapsack in illicit fashion like some well-tempered tambourine man. The result is that I have been hooked on Steven Osborne’s recording of the Esquisses ever since.  But Alkan also scored nul points from Desert Island Distraction.

So then I tried Buxtehude. For shame, and because of Spotify, I don’t own any Buxtehude, and I could not name a principal work. But my guess from all this was that Buxtehude was closer to the cusp, and may actually be the cusp of modern music itself, classical and popular.  Think bass-lines.  Go figure.

The database yields 649 mentions of Johann Sebastian Bach (compared with 718 for Beethoven, 790 for Mozart, and only 251 for The Beatles). Bach is an important anchor here, and despite those statistics, his stock has been rising over the past 70 years. It seems an increasing number — and especially musicians — regard him as the greatest composer of all time. Prolific in his own output,  he was the can-do cantata-writer, he allegedly nailed modern tuning for us — the art of enharmonic compromise that the piano tuner wields every six months on our own joanna.  He was a man more reliable and mathematical in his music than ever there was.  But he was also a man who went AWOL for three months from his first official post as a young professional, walked 400 kilometers across Germany and then 400km back, to study at the feet of the master. Yes, Buxtehude.  He even wanted to work as Buxtehude’s assistant and eventual successor in Lübeck, but baulked at the surprising condition of having to marry Buxtehude’s unprepossessing daughter. What were they smoking in HR in those days to let that contractual clause through?

That line-in-the-sand detail notwithstanding, to dem Bach himself Buxtehude was the greater man.  So, the composer who so influenced Bach — the man of 649 mentions — and could inspire him to become utterly derelict in his duties, must surely be mentioned in the Desert Island Dispatches somewhere. You would hope. Unless, of course, he was everybody’s ninth choice.

Given that Desert Island Discs was started in 1942, and for the first several decades the guests should have been mainly private-school, university-educated, po-faced establishment types with well-cultivated musical tastes, a great many brought up in the church, schooled in cathedral and Oxbridge choristry — the Buxtehude heartland, you might say — I was ready to see Buxtehude generate several results among 1950s bureaucrats or politicians, lord high chief surgeons/justices/FellowsoftheRoyalSociety, or at least among the major post-war classical musicians themselves, the people the sixties, Peter Cook and Monty Python were supposed to have rid us of, with their bow-ties, bowler hats and silly walks. But no. Buxtehude, he da man. Just one result.

Bingo!  Back of the net! Buxtehudethunkit!

Here’s the thing. Buxtehude, in spite of his massive indirect influence on our culture, is just clinging on for dear life in the celebrity endorsement jungle (from which there is no getting-me-out-of anymore).  And he was a no-show for the past 50 of those 70 years. On this basis, if you’re a pessimist, dumbing down will surely kill him off eventually.

Sadly, I can’t myself recommend any Buxtehude to you. He’s still kinda new to me. Instead, we’re forced to rely on  the comic actor Kenneth Williams. About six years into his fame he appeared on a 1961 Desert Island Discs and chose an organ piece, Prelude and Fugue in G minor, BuxWV 149. Who’da thunk it? Williams was no Edwardian grandee from one of the great universities but the son of a homophobic barber from King’s Cross. He straddled high and low culture, to the extent that it fueled his own self-loathing, leading (they say) to a misadventurous death. Williams was himself a cuspal figure of the 20th century, in comedy at least. So, he carried the cultural torch for Buxtehude, and heaven knows what else.

Here you will see him anticipating Nassim Taleb’s Expert Problem, and beyond that his own seminal contribution to English folk music, which has yet to be requested by any Desert Island Desperado. For shame.

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Tweet I wonder if Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success is going to inadvertently create a popular misunderstanding about success similar in form to my previously stated fear about what a superficial reading of Gut Feelings and The Wisdom of Crowds would do for effective decision-making. In a few Twitter exchanges yesterday, the notion […]

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