"Sleepers Wake". Though, to be honest, I never fell asleep. It was 1:30 am in the peaceful Hudson River Valley, and a gentle storm was vainly fulminating against my window. Normally, little storms are wonderful at encouraging sleep, but just not tonight. And it was there and then, staring at the ceiling, that I hatched a devious plan. People often talk about the healing aspects of music; I was going to put all of that to the test, and ride it all the way to a sense of triumph!
And with that dream of a radiant sunrise in mind, I saddled up and hit the road, with nothing but a jug of coffee, a sixty pound sack of audio and video equipment, and my organ shoes. An hour later, I was standing in the beatifically moonlit sanctuary of Hitchcock Presbyterian Church. Not quite bright enough yet for video, but a few reflectors here, a few tinted lights there, and... just bright enough.
Der Wächter sehr hoch auf der Zinne,
wach auf, du Stadt Jerusalem.
The watchman high up in the tower:
awake, city of Jerusalem
To whatever extent the figurative watchman figures into the story of the hymn, the much more literal watchmen—the Scarsdale Police Department—figure into mine. I had forgotten the alarm combination for the sanctuary, and the three officers summoned as a result were justifiably suspicious. And I don't blame them; it was 2:30 am, and some very loud, spooky organ music was rumbling from within a suburban church. Thirty minutes of intense questioning later, their curiosity was sufficiently satisfied, and the silence of the early morning returned.
"So I was fined 50 dollars and had to pick up the garbage in the snow, but that's not what I came to tell you about."
The cops were right to be cranky. I never exactly relish the prospect of being awake at 3:00 am. And it rarely happens; way too late to go to sleep, way too early to wake up. It's only really on sleepless nights that it comes up. And then there are the legends... the "Witching Hour," the "Devil's Hour," the time most people die in their sleep (according to Ray Bradbury), the antipode of the Crucifixion (God claimed 3pm, the time of the Crucifixion, so Satan claimed 3am). But there is also that very real feeling of isolation, while the world sleeps peacefully on.
And I was hard at work trying to ignore all of that as I busied myself with the microphones and cameras.
Oh, the music itself? Reger's Chorale Fantasia on Wachet Auf, a piece that captivated me for years. From hearing it at my first ever organ class at Juilliard, to plucking up the courage to learn it three years later, to gradually understanding how it is born in darkness and deeply chromatic pain and torturous flashes of piercing chords, and overcomes those demons over 18 minutes of struggle and finger-knotting passagework, to culminate in a closing fugue that is almost like laughter, and the final return of the chorale...
Upon arriving at any organ, one must extensively set up that organ for the music ahead. For a piece that long, with that many sudden changes in volume, with that many subtle inflections and tints, this promised to be a real task.
People say that films are written three times: first in the script, second in the filming, and third in the edit. A piece of organ music is also written three times: first by the composer, second by the performer during the months or years of practice, and third in the final hours before the performance. Unlike violinists or even pianists, who enjoy a level of stability in their relationships with their instruments, I am confronted constantly with organs, each unique, each begging to be used differently. In these final hours, you learn about the instrument, you learn about the music, you feel for what might work, you rediscover the colors, the architecture, the balances, sometimes even the notes themselves. This of course needs to be done slowly and methodically—I was able to take about an hour, but on a less familiar organ, it might have been four, or worse.
Another element is setting the organ up from memory. I massively economize on time by not making a written note of every button to be used, every manual change, every gesture of the expression pedal—I don't typically bring scores to these setup sessions. But the disadvantage is a level of vulnerability. Scores, sticky notes, pencils: they are all very comforting things to have on hand when confronting the unexpected. I paid for this swashbuckling spirit here—one must be alert if the final setup is to be a success, but the lack of sleep finally was making itself known, and every second I wasted was a second fewer of recording time—crankiness is a real danger. This is also the ideal time to have a helper. Audio engineers, page turners, camera operators: they do fulfill real purposes, but the presence of another person is, above all, comforting. Someone to talk to, maybe to crack an unexpected joke, to relieve the tedium of what can often be busywork. Or maybe just to lessen the loneliness in the wee hours. But companions can be hard to come by at certain times of the day.
With all this in mind, I began the recording at 4:30 am, feeling every bit as disgruntled as the opening of the music suggests.
To splice or not to splice. It is tempting to make audio edits (and of course to cover them with creative video edits); it saves time and leads to a cleaner final product. And in the past, I learned to make very smooth splices, crossfades, and other bits of trickery from editing recordings for friends. And I don't think of these as a form of "cheating"—edits are a big part of the big recording studio aesthetic, and permit a more efficient recording process. But in this recording, I wanted something raw and real, something passionate and at least a little representative of my grumpiness. It's for this reason that you'll hear an uncorrected split note in the first minute—not the most accurate performance ever. All video edits are from switching between A-camera (hands from left) and B-camera (feet from right), and are from the same take.
Oh, what a take... I got this one about an hour in, at 5:30 am. By then, I was able to turn the lights off; it was already light enough outside. It began the same as all the others—"please let this be the last take"—but five minutes in, as the music began brightening, there was this wonderful feeling of confidence... It was not my goal to capture this, but if you look closely at the video, you can see the room brighten considerably as the sun began to peek over the horizon. Beginning at night, ending in morning.
So what of the feeling of triumph? There's that satisfying kind that comes from successfully playing a difficult piece of music. And there's that simple joy of being able to pack up and return to normal life activities. But there was a more subtle kind, of looking up at one of the windows towards the end of the fugue and seeing it finally sunlit and iridescent. Whether or not I played well—that is for the listener to determine—I had the wonderful feeling that, in being sleepless and rather miserable, in forcing myself from bed, in discovering new things about a familiar organ, a familiar piece, myself, in feeling such a surge of confidence at the precise moment the music turns from despair to hope, in finally seeing the morning, that I had finally been able to make the piece my own, to embody something bigger than myself in some small way. Or a form of happiness?