The Northern Lights of
Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in
D-Minor: My home
Did you know that the aurora borealis makes a sound? It emits a sort of electrical hiss, a subtle shifting of audible frequencies, as it both shapeshifts and colorshifts across the black, star-studded sky.
I count myself very fortunate to have been born and raised in northern Sweden where each winter we had vivid northern lights (norrsken—literally, northern shine) a dozen or so times a year.
These were gigantic, multi-colored church organ pipes covering half the northern sky, fluttering or shivering slowly in the sun-particle breeze while whispering its unoiled song to all little humans standing in the snow, head back in awe.
The first several times I saw the northern lights I had yet to hear of Bach or any of his music, but I was introduced to this god of music sooner than most in that we lived a five-minute walk from our local church which sported a very impressive (I’d go so far as to say magnificent) organ, and in that the church organist was also my music teacher and he had invited me to come hear him practice any time I wanted.
The keyboards to this organ were housed in the choir loft (some call it the church balcony) at the rear of the church which you reached by climbing a narrow and spiraling set of stone steps.
Sometimes of a quiet winter night I could actually hear him play even from our house (yes, I’d have to be outside, of course, and yes, it would have to be very quiet) and then I’d rush up to the church, climb the stairs and debouch into this wonderful space that housed not only the multiple-keyboard organ cockpit, but also the seats for the choir and (of course) the magnificent pipes.
And there he would sit (his name was Harald) both hands and both feet busy with their magic. He’d sense me arriving and turn and smile at me without stopping. Me, I’d sit down and just watch and listen.
Now, it was not that I knew that the music was written by Bach—yes, he may have mentioned it but that did not register at the time. What did register, however, was Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor, which Harald played more than once (he obviously loved it, too). Those ten heavenly opening notes found two eager ears and a forever home in this young boy, listening in open-mouthed wonder to his music teacher’s conjurer’s trick.
The association between the northern lights and the grand pipes of the church organ is easily made—they do sport the same features—and it’s only a few short associative steps from there to seeing Bach up there in the winter sky (once I learned that he had written the Toccata and Fugue).
To be honest, perhaps it’s not so much that this stellar piece of music was my home (as I wrote in the Wolfku above); it’s more that I became a home for it, and from there on, looking up at the divine winter-night spectacle, there they were, both Harald and Johannes Sebastian, smiling down at me.
That said, let’s fast forward a few years, and I now live in Stockholm in a very cold little apartment with a very good stereo system. One night—and, yes, I must admit to being high on hashish this night—I put on Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor, and as the heavens opened in those first ten notes, I saw the familiar northern lights right there in my room, real as anything, descending through the ceiling.
Fast forward a few more years, and I wrote a short story about just that night called “Bach Lights,” which I’ve included it below. It tells of the wonder and why I still am a home for Bach, and he a home for me.
The Winter Dawn is timid this far north. That is why she tiptoed up to my window and then hesitated, as if unsure about what to do next.
Within, Night, her brother and contrast, lingered in many places: on the windows and along the floor as frost, in the cold hash pipe as ash, in the lava lamp as yellow and red bubbly ghost still rising and falling and rising and falling from the heat of the little bulb that could.
On the table as story.
The sun scaled the sky a little more before Sister Dawn finally worked up the courage to pry herself through the frosted glass and heavy curtains and onto my face where she settled and with the help of pure physical (as in bathroom) needs found and excavated me.
I opened my eyes to wonder at the ceiling, then turned to my left to wonder at the all the little letters written on the wall, then turned to my right to wonder at the table, then at the large sheet of paper on the table with many more inky letters scrawled all over it, all mine. And when I say wondered, I really mean wondered, for as yet I could not imagine what I might have written on wall and paper.
I heaved myself halfway up and onto my elbow to wonder a little harder at the sheet of paper: so many letters, all running around scratchily in my barely legible hand. And looking, and looking again, and making out a word or two or three it came back to me, little by a little more: that long, glorious and wordy exhaling under the spell of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor.
I sat all the way up now and retrieved the sheet from the table, wrapped the blanket around me (noticing my breath as faint mist in the cold air), leaned back against the thick wall behind me, and began to read in earnest.
Reading, I returned to the night before and again fell in with Brother Cold and Dark (aka Brother Night)—Cold and Dark despite the two gas burners on my stove burning as high as they would go and hissing heat into his icy heart and despite the little kerosene heater that did all it could to give the gas burners a hand from its frosty corner.
But those were only gestures at warmth, for I live in Stockholm and it is deep winter in the capital N North with a meter of snow outside my window, glittering now and would be sharp to the touch, I could well imagine, and would squeak now underfoot, I could well imagine.
And in this capital N North my room is a tall rectangular box of frigid space: a three-meter-high ceiling with two almost meter-thick walls colder than death facing the outside, another wall nearly as cold facing the entrance way, and a fourth (not so cold but not-at-all warm) wall that I shared with my neighbor. It is in this box of winter that Brother Night and I spent an interesting evening; a cold and stoned evening—just me, though, with the stoned part, Brother Night doesn’t smoke hashish.
Initially, after a pipe or two, I had sailed across first one ocean (the Atlantic) and then a continent (USA) to reach the next ocean (the Pacific) and the big city by the water they call Los Angeles which had gifted me the Doors and their Strange Days Long Playing (LP) record. Leaving my very good speakers as stereo adventure I listened through all of side one and then all of side two and still my frosty wings were spread and eager to go places so I carefully lifted the Doors LP off the turntable and returned it to its sleeve (only touching the record edges), then found and disrobed and carefully lowered a Bach LP onto the turntable instead. Then, as carefully, brought out the stylus from its cradle and lowered it, slowly, slowly, respectfully, the way you should always lower even the most eager stylus onto Bach.
I have a theory: Bach is God. Well, if not God God then at least of the same substance, of that I have no doubt.
Of sounds there are none more God-like than those first measures of the Toccata and Fugue in D-minor (or D-Moll as my Archiv German pressing says). They arrived through the ceiling, from a distant somewhere up there in the darkness, as descending lashes of beauty to kill the frozen silence.
Stunned, I reached for pen and paper as would a photographer for his camera when suddenly stumbling upon extraterrestrial aliens—slowly, carefully, centimeter-by-centimeter—hoping not to draw their attention, you know, spook them.
I had to get him down om paper.
Him God. Him Bach. Had to. For were I not to let what now flowed into me, flow through me and then out of me as ink onto this stiff paper I would overfill and drown in beauty. Not a bad way to go mind you, but I was young then and not ready that final passage just yet.
But I did not reach for pen and paper inconspicuously enough. Those first few measures, midflight, spotted my movement and rushed me and wrestled me to the floor where some part of me, some sunny sandy California part of me somehow remained in the Doors’ Los Angeles: prostrate upon Santa Monica beach sand, warm ear to the warm ground listening to the Pacific, listening to wave upon wave reaching sand like wind reaching trees but another part of me—most of me—remained in the wintry Stockholm here and now hearing Bach/God descend and I scrambled back on my feet and discovered a pen in my hand and the sheet of stiff paper on my table and then I began to write down all that Bach said.
Those first few measures again, resurrected in a lower register, circling, then entering me like so many lovers: through my ears, through my eyes, through my skin, embracing me each as they entered. My body sang with Bach. Then the vision.
It was brother North Wind: the ever dawn of the northern lights, their shimmering pipes of icy organ rising shifting rising in a mid-winter fantasy making snow sing. It was God coming down through my ceiling as the aurora borealis and I knew then and there that Bach and God are indeed one and the same.
Then the world rises. It starts somewhere in the engine room of time, his feet on the lower pedals, hands too to the keyboard left as he begins to lift the planet. My room vibrates with the effort, with the strength and sheer joy of that rising. I am water I am wave I am blue ink and I flow onto stiffly white frame after frame of photographed aliens or no one will ever believe me I actually hear this.
The lifting escalates and crescendos and is done escalating now and flings open the door onto Spring.
I hear and see and follow with the tip of my very costly fountain pen which I bought just the other day knowing full well I could not afford it. But these were the days when a check was automatically good because you signed it and gave it to the clerk who then handed you the pen with smile. I have since learned the meaning of the word overdrawn, but meanwhile here it is in my hand and anyway, it’s too late to take it back now, no matter how expensive it was, so I do with it what I hoped and dreamed I would do with it and I write with it.
And out into Spring: The doors are flung wide open, onto narrow crystal steps that dance up into the morning into sky. No more brother North Wind now, just dawn and dew and those little lakes of silver that form on my petals and leaves and do to sense of smell what Michelangelo does to rock.
I wish I could cry matching tears.
Though for whose benefit? I am overcome, yes, but not beyond control. So, un-crying, I keep writing. I no longer know exactly what I say or why really just that I know that this is a capital M Moment and I am having some sort of epiphany here and maybe just maybe I’m a genius of some kind that someone is waiting to discover and make immensely rich and warm and to move out of this freezing almost ceiling-less room so full of darkness and frost and this immense music.
Sound as Mountain. Physical. And I confess I lose my way. In Him.
I reach the end of the paper and there is more to write as I sail on, cast about by waves—a soul in blessed turmoil. And then a new cresting that lets me sprout wings and out and over I glide. He does this to you, you know, God does. Bach does.
I have taken leave of Stockholm of winter of snow and Boreas’ and Bach’s Light and now there is only ocean reflecting soul and I cannot comprehend how anyone encumbered with arms and legs and fingers and toes could possibly have conceived and composed beauty such as this, wings such as these and again I remind myself that I am in His presence, sailing His air, and that for Him all is possible.
I turn the sheet over. The one sheet. I only have the one sheet? Why have I only the one sheet? But wondering does not turn it into several, so instead I turn it over and continue this scribbly dance on the other side and I hope that at least some small vestige of what enters actually exits as I race ahead by one inky Swedish word after another and turning my head now I see a path that perhaps can be followed, perhaps should be followed, perhaps must be followed, or I will never find my way back.
What goes through God’s mind when he writes music like this? What could possibly inspire Him, source of all inspiration? But something does and did and am I really the first to hear this? To hear what He meant. To see what He saw.
There are islets below. They could be Greece or they could be Australia or they could be our own Stockholm archipelago in the summer I don’t know and really, I don’t care as long as my wings carry me and I don’t fly too close to the sun.
My speakers make a faint hum from an inverter I need in this old apartment, so old it only has direct current (DC) electricity which needs chopping up into little AC bits to drive my stereo and that’s what makes them hum but God doesn’t care and I no longer notice. Now there is only space and the windy tapestry of pipes as I approach the edge of the second page and there is so much more to say but nowhere to say it so I turn to the clean wall behind me and now I have a sheet to last me.
We sail on, Bach and God and I for the final measure.
Timid Sister Dawn (she is very perceptive) sees all this of course which is perhaps why she finally ventured through frosty panes and heavy curtain to find my face, beneath which I sleep the sleep of last night’s frost and though I slowly know her on my face up there on the somewhere surface I choose to ignore her for a while. But she has come to stay and soon manages to dispel her brother to some nether, even colder region, to under my bed perhaps and into corners where he will sulk till the sun sets again to set him loose and she tugs me gently and tells me to wake up, to wake all the way up and to open my eyes.
“So what do you think?” I ask.
My friend gets to the bottom of the stiff sheet and mumbles, without taking his eyes off the text, “Amazing.” Then he turns the sheet over.
“Do you think your dad might publish it?” I ask. His dad is an editor of some sort. It’s a small magazine, but quite prestigious I’m told.
“I would think so,” he says and keeps reading. “Surreal,” he adds after another while, still not taking his eyes off my scribbles.
Then he gets to the bottom of the second page and says, “Does it end here?”
He turns the sheet over again and over again and over again looking for a better ending. “Where is the rest?”
“On my wall,” I remember.