Desert Island Discs

Jennifer L. Knox

Full disclosure: despite my seven-year stint as a third-chair clarinetist, my musical vocabulary is limited to simian gestures, deep nods, and stink-face grimaces. No doubt, if I could describe, in proper terms, how music does what it does, I would be a phenomenally wealthy woman.

So if I were stuck on a desert island, I reckon, more than anything, I'd want companionship. But I'd be alone, except for…animals…birds…parrots, probably—hopefully—as they're native to every continent except the frozen ones, and are very intelligent. If you don't think they're smart, just go to the zoo and observe them…observing you from their perches in the trees…playing hard to get…and judging. Don't kid yourself—they're judging you. But with the right juke box, I might entice them to approach my campsite, where I could teach them to say things like, "That's a lovely blouse," and "You tell 'em, Jen!"

The following selections were chosen with the sole intent of ingratiating myself to avian island companions. They have been tested on my own parrots with wildly successful results. How do I know when my birds "enjoy" a piece of music? When it makes me happy to watch them listening to it.

Mississippi John Hurt, The Library of Congress Recordings

The silveriest guitar and plumiest voice of all the bluesmen. He can be dirty—like in "Funky Butt" ("I thought I heard somebody say/she got a funky butt, stinky butt, take it away")—but pragmatically so. A bald woman's still a woman, after all, and worthy of love—not a subject for ridicule. His lust is wry: "Candy man's stick don't melt away/It just gets better, so the ladies say." And "Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me" is sure to have birds from islands around flocking in for an earful.

Blossom Dearie, Blossom Dearie

Who says, "humans: we can be pretty cool," better than Blossom? The perfect bop to swish your hips to, barefoot in the sand, and her pert, bubbly voice's the ultimate ironic soundtrack to a hurricane. Now if only a crate of gin and a cocktail shaker would wash up on the shore…

The Masterworks of Satyajit Ray

Elemental yet wholly unfamiliar: the steps from note to note, the distance between the steps, the pacing, the point where a new instrument noses in and passes the lead like a racehorse. Ray's music is like Gone with the Wind for birds: it's got drama, romance and humor. I would love to see all the animals on my island—except large predators—enjoying this.

In my brief session researching Satyajit Ray, I stumbled across Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European Nobel Laureate for literature in 1913. Tagore was a friend of Ray's father, Sukumar, an esteemed Bengali writer. If I could score another wish, it would be the collected works of Tagore on my island, so I'd need an island the size of, like, Rhode Island.

The Mikado recorded at the D'Oyly Carte in 1926

Gilbert and Sullivan is like a magic trick for birds. Suddenly a new flock appears close by. They hear, but cannot see it. And apparently this flock is having a party…with loads of hullabaloo.

Steely Dan, A Decade of Steely Dan

I'd take the Dan (the best of, though it doesn't have "Dirty Work on it) for times I wanted to be alone, to recall my landlocked life, when I was king of the jungle, the hot pink neon jungle, the rats, and all the blood on my pale, uncalloused hands.

More Desert Island Discs

Jen Benka

My great-grandmother Phoebe was French-Canadian. My mother, who was named for her, studied in Quebec for a spell, and eventually became a French teacher. She had several albums by Edith Piaf that she acquired in the 1950s and 1960s, and certain Piaf songs—like the plaintiff yet commanding "Mon Dieu" and "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien"— are part of the soundtrack of my childhood.

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Brian Teare

Before poetry became central to my life, music was everything. From the ages of 13 to 21, I studied the flute, and for about five years during that time I also studied composition. When I wasn't practicing scales or Bach or Mozart, I was poring over scores by Brahms and Ravel or listening to the tapes I made from radio broadcasts of new music. For most of my adolescence, I had almost no time for or interest in pop culture, though friends from high school did introduce me to MTV, to Cyndi Lauper and Erasure, and to what was then called "college" music, bands like They Might Be Giants, 10,000 Maniacs, and Camper Van Beethoven.

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