Now that I have embraced middle age I listen a lot to radio 4. The fact that I tend to do it on headphones from a podcast does not, sadly make me down with the young people when what I am listening to is Desert Island Discs.
Anyhow, a couple of weeks ago, they had on the Scottish composer James McMillan. Unlike almost every other Irish person you will ever meet, I am not particularly interested in music. It is a shameful thing and one that causes me some difficulty when I try to select my own desert island discs, but there it is. The only composers I really know are the ones who are regularly answers on University Challenge – you start to recognise the style and Benjamin Britten is usually a pretty safe bet for one of the answers, as they are quite patriotic. Normally when I listen to Desert Island Discs, I am fascinated by the people but rather bored by the music which, happily “for copyright reasons” is shorter on the podcast but, for some reason, this time, I loved the music. McMillan chose a piece by Thomas Tallis (occasional UC answer and, also, the name of one of the cats living upstairs in Brussels, the other one was Byrd, of course he was – so not a completely unknown quantity) which was arranged for 40 (!) voice parts, it was so beautiful that it made me cry (low enough bar actually, I cry easily, but still). And then McMillan turned out to be a devout Catholic and quite sane which, sadly, seems to be an increasingly rare combination. It was a really beautiful programme.
For his last disc, McMillan chose a contemporary composer. I was pretty sure that I knew no contemporary composers so I was ready to fast forward. As he described how this composer’s music divided people and that he once had a French orchestra in revolt when he tried to get them to play it, I was pretty sure that I was likely to be on the side of the French orchestra. His choice turned out to be an Irish composer called Gerard Barry. Ladies and gentlemen, where is that composer from? Yes, he is from Cork. Who about 20 years ago shared a house with his partner? Yes, me, that’s who. I have to say we have lost touch over the years and it is a long time since I have met the eminent composer and longer still since I have had dinner in his house. Still, though, what are the odds? I suppose quite short, given that he is from Cork. I have to say, I listened to the piece and notwithstanding my tenuous link to greatness, I probably would side with the French orchestra.