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Defining the Discographic SelfDesert Island Discs in Context$

Julie Brown, Nicholas Cook, and Stephen Cottrell

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266175

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266175.001.0001

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Personal Spin D

Personal Spin D

Castaway, 24 February 2013

(p.145) Personal Spin D
Defining the Discographic Self

Uta Frith

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

George Frideric Handel: Organ Concerto Opus 7 No. 1 in B flat major, Bourrée Allegro

Engelbert Humperdinck: Ein Männlein steht im Walde from Hansel and Gretel

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonata for 4 hands in B flat major

Franz Schubert: Schubert’s String Quartet No. 13 in A Minor...

Disc choices

George Frideric Handel: Organ Concerto Opus 7 No. 1 in B flat major, Bourrée Allegro

Engelbert Humperdinck: Ein Männlein steht im Walde from Hansel and Gretel

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonata for 4 hands in B flat major

Franz Schubert: Schubert’s String Quartet No. 13 in A Minor

Kurt Weill: The Cannon Song from The Threepenny Opera

Jonathan Harvey: Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco

Fred Frith: Some Clouds Don’t Have a Silver Lining

Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier–Waltzes

I was familiar with Desert Island Discs because it’s a cultural institution, but I was flabbergasted to be asked to appear. I never imagined that I would be on such a prestigious and at the same time popular programme that is so deeply embedded in British culture. And I had never actually listened to the programme, because of my peculiar addiction to Radio 3. So I had to listen to some of the podcasts, and I found them very interesting. And I thought, ‘What a nice, interesting resource to have, to be able to find out about various people one would like to know more about.’

I am a passionate Radio 3 listener and this means my taste is mainly classical music, plus some contemporary music and some jazz. So I had an abundance of possible pieces that I would have liked to have on a desert island or would have been happy to be associated with. It was really quite difficult to choose. I quickly formed a list with at least 20 favourite pieces. The problem was narrowing them down. I discussed them with my husband, and in each case I thought of possible connections to some particular time in my life. I was guided as well as limited by my aim of being able to hear a complete track. This narrowed my choices in a helpful way. But actually that is very tricky. Sometimes there’s only a movement that’s short enough to be played. But in the end I was actually very much guided by the researcher who came to talk to me. She had an excellent sense of what would work and what wouldn’t work. She was incredibly skilful at keeping me at ease. We talked about various choices I had made, and she would say, ‘Ah, we’ve just had that last week.’ So immediately, I said, ‘Oh good, let’s try something else’ and then ‘do you think this would be alright?’ It was like a negotiation: ‘What about this?’ or ‘What about that?’ I was happy with the end result but I couldn’t have come up with that myself, I think. These are the invisible people behind the scenes. I was very impressed by the fact that a small dedicated team is responsible for producing this programme—and they’re all women.

One thing I was self-conscious about was the need to create a story about my life which I knew I would then have to stick to for ever. The story would be truthful, as far as I could rely on my memory, but it could not be the ‘whole’ truth. I can honestly say that all the pieces I chose are among my favourite pieces, so that I could listen to them forever. It seemed very easy to connect each piece with a personal memory.

(p.146) I wanted to include a simple German song to symbolise my childhood, but it could have been almost anything. My mother sang a lot and so I distilled something very personal about these songs. I think people sang much more in the past than they do now. In the end, the BBC researcher who talked to me about my choices directed me away from one song, which had been chosen in a recent DID programme, and towards another. This was helpful as the choice was too wide. Then I wanted to include something that was a contrast to this ‘sweet’ song that I associated with my childhood, but which was still typically German. The ‘Soldatenlied’ from Die Dreigroschenoper was an obvious choice. I heard it first during a slightly rebellious phase of my adolescence and immediately liked it, as I did the whole opera. I chose the ‘Soldatenlied’ not in spite of but because it is quite savage. It is about the horrors of war and it allowed me to touch on World War II, as I was born in the middle of it.

I was determined from the start to include a track by my composer brother-in-law Fred Frith. In the end I went with a track that I have always particularly liked, because it is both warm and quirky. Again it was important that it was short enough to be played in full. It was nice for me to be able to play ‘Some Clouds Don’t Have a Silver Lining’ from the album Cheap at Half the Price, and also to show a little bit of family solidarity. I also wanted to pay homage to an 18th-century family member, Josefa Auernhammer, a pupil of Mozart’s, who was a concert pianist, composer, and teacher. She is mentioned in Mozart’s letters and it is likely that they played duets. It’s a very tenuous connection (my maiden name is Aurnhammer), but I love it! It’s a family story that I grew up with. I also used to play piano duets with my husband, and the piece I chose is a movement of one of Mozart’s piano sonatas that was one of our favourites.

One of my lifelong nostalgic loves is the sound of bells, which have solemn and sad connotations. They represent to me something of my own childhood experience and particular events. Momentous events, perhaps, but also regular, routine events. I remembered a wonderful piece by Jonathan Harvey with the evocative title Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, which is based on the tenor bell at Winchester Cathedral. I had instantly liked it having heard it on radio only a short while before. This choice was an attempt to step outside the personal memories of a lifetime and look at the bigger picture, which certainly includes death and those who are dead.

I had a fantastic time during the interview with Kirsty Young and admired her intense concentration and her sensitive questioning. I was surprised that the interview did not take a chronological route, but I liked the way it was conducted with questions that always made me think. I had the feeling of a very rich conversation, which may seem a little exaggerated given that it is only a short broadcast. I was happy with it but I would have liked to have had more time to explain my book and my luxury choices. It seemed to me that we had run out of time towards the end, simply because it was so easy to chat about all the earlier points. I talked about a huge number of things over at least two hours. But when I listened to it, I said, ‘Oh. But you know, it’s been edited into practically nothing!’ It seemed to me very, very short compared to the actual interview. But it flowed beautifully. I have talked to other people who have been on Desert Island Discs and they did not have this experience.

I was astonished at how many responses I got, in the form of letters, emails, and verbal comments. I had not realised just how many people listened to this programme. Some listeners could clearly identify with my experiences and musical choices, and I was very touched by this. Quite a few people identified themselves because they also grew up in (p.147) Germany, and they said, ‘Ah, these are just my sort of musical tastes’, and that was very interesting.

I had no idea that the programme-makers were so interested in me being German. It always makes me cringe a little and I don’t really like to talk about it. So I was quite surprised that they would make a thing of it. But I can understand it. I can see that it makes me different from other guests. I think that’s what they are looking for. They want people who have very different life experiences. So I provided something that was perhaps not so common in their list of people.

I very much doubt that I would be asked again but, hypothetically, I would do it. I would love to come up with a completely different set of musical pieces and memories, and I certainly think that I could make a different story, with different pieces associated with different aspects of my life, and not repeat myself. I was happy to be on Essential Classics on Radio 3 during Autism Awareness week the following year. So I had the opportunity to choose completely different pieces, which in my view were suited to the topic and allowed me to touch on aspects of autism.

I would have thought it would be very difficult to answer questions about what music I listen to and why, and how it relates to my life, and also perhaps not very interesting. But with the right help and with the right questions it was a rich experience. And it also made clear to me that I’m by no means as unique as we all think we are. Because there are all these other castaways, and in a strange way I think there is something similar between them. Similar in the sense that they are ready to tell these stories, they’re ready to make connections with these personal memories and pieces of music that they’ve chosen. So, ironically, it made my own life history and musical taste seem both more opulent and more ordinary than I had thought it was.

I’m incredibly proud that I was chosen. I have no idea how it came about. I don’t suppose anybody ever knows, do they?

Professor Uta Frith is best known for her research on autism spectrum disorders. She was one of the initiators of the study of Asperger’s Syndrome in the UK and her work on reading development, spelling, and dyslexia has been highly influential. Professor Frith is a Fellow of the Royal Society, the British Academy, and the Academy of Medical Sciences. She is Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Development at University College London and Visiting Professor at the Interacting Minds Centre, University of Aarhus, Denmark. In 2012 she received an Honorary DBE. Since 2014 she has presented a series of BBC2 Horizon documentaries on neuro-developmental disorders. (p.148)