This archived article was written by: Nathaniel Woodward
I’m stranded on a desert island and theres nobody in sight, no land, no ships, not even the contrail of a jet in the sky. I open the one bag that happened to wash ashore with me and I discover, to my amazement and delight that the collective works of my favorite musical artist have survived along with the means to play them. As I lay flat-out on the beach my toes in the rising tide I compile my playlist in a very specific order, arranging the first three pieces, my favorites, to be the first last music I ever hear on Earth. The artist I chose to accompany me on my journey into oblivion? Ludwig van Beethoven. Disappointed? Frankly, I don’t care. This is my death story and I get to choose how I go out.
I put my headphones on, recline into the sand, close my eyes and hit play. The first song to play is my go to lead in song when I’m morose, when melancholy is the flavor of the hour and I need something around that understands what I’m feeling, the song is Beethoven’s Opus 131. The Jasper String Quartet is the natural choice to tackle the most complex arrangement in history. Seven movements played without any pauses, no time to retune which makes the 131 so spectacular, its desperate, messy, passionate and exactly how life is. The piece is arranged, as TS Elliot explained, in such a way that as each instrument in the quartet goes out of tune the others must listen and adjust their playing to match so the whole quartet plays on in harmony. I discovered the 131 the week after my oldest son Jonathan died, I was out of tune and needed something to play along with me, making me sound better as I figured out how to go on. The Opus saved me.
Honestly, I don’t need any other songs if the nature of my new reality is a grim death on a desert island but I’ll indulge. The second song is Beethoven’s Piano Sonata number 10 in G major. When my oldest child was born I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, thats a common thing to say but really, I had no freaking idea what I was doing. My wife worked days and I worked nights, so after my two hours of sleep I was woken to tend to our infant daughter, so not only was I new to this parenting nonsense, I was tired. A few months into my tenure as a father I was at my wits end, there were days that no matter what I did, I could not calm a crying baby. My pleas for help were answered when an older sister of mine dropped off a pirated copy of “Baby Einsteins” which I immediately began playing to the screaming child. The piano Sonata number 10 played first and immediately placated the screaming baby, as it mesmerized her, she mesmerized me. The simplistic cadences with the rise and fall of tempo caused us to rock unconsciously together as we began to bond over this piece of music. So my second song will remind me of my daughter.
The third song I will listen to is Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. It’s basic, everyone knows it and its overplayed to death at their 12 year old piano recital. It’s played on unlocked lobby piano’s by skullduggerous long haired teenagers to impress friends, its played on family upright piano’s to court the affections of the unsuspecting objects of young loves desires and it’s played by those who know it’s true meaning. Those who understand Beethoven, understand what it means to be alone, disconnected and painfully aware of their mortality. Beethoven lived a life of pain, isolation and exploitation. Beethoven knew what it meant to be alone, full of something incredible but challenged at every turn to let it out. The Moonlight Sonata isn’t written the way it is so anyone, even the most novice of pianists could play it. It was written this way because thats the way Beethoven wanted it to be written. Because he felt the music in that particular way and you don’t have to “Mozart’ everything up to make it spectacular. Simple, slow, painful, thoughtful, melodramatic ,ethereal and above all brutally beautifully honest.
The first two songs will undoubtably reduce me to a pile of gelatinous goo, causing my sunburnt husk of a body to sink both metaphorically as well as literally closer to the edge of the water as the tide begins to rise higher. The third will relax me, make me accept the new reality that my professor has so graciously bestowed upon me (come on, I would never venture to the middle of the ocean unless metaphorically thrust there by a thought experiment) and most importantly this sonata makes me take stock and think of whats most important to me. As the song finishes and the water begins to wash over my head I’ll slowly take off the headphones, place them neatly in the wsand and begin swimming. If these songs taught you anything about me its that there is nothing thats going to keep me away from my kids.