What woke you up today?
Literally, I mean. Do you have an alarm clock? Mine is pretty fancy.. For every letter of the alphabet, my iPhone has at least three alarm tones. For C: there’s five. “Constellation,” “Cosmic,” “Circuit,” “Chimes” and “Crystals.”
A couple of years ago, I discovered I could change the alarm tones on my iPhone and play those of my own choice. I've experimented waking up to Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dogg." Sidney Bechet's "All of Me," and Patti Smith's "Gloria." But I always come back to Schubert. Recently, I’ve been waking up to Franz Schubert’s Impromptus. Do you know them?
Schubert’s Impromptu D. 899 (Op. 90) No 3 in G-flat major is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard. If I have recently died, and you are reading this, please play this song at my funeral. Or, even better, can we time my death to a live performance of No. 3 in G-flat major by Maria Joao Pires? Let’s just say if I start dying, put this tune on immediately. It sounds like night and day speaking to each other. It’s like a rose lifting from a vial of ink.
Trouble is, when I hear Schubert’s Impromptu D. 899 (Op. 90) No. 3 in G flat major, I’d rather lie there all day listening to it. In Watergang, a tiny village nestled in a wetland outside of Amsterdam where I’m living now, roosters coo and church bells chime in the morning. The day begins in the most idyllic way. I could be living in a mid-19th century painting by Turner, or a poem by Wordsworth. When I look out of the window, I sometimes see a heron folding into the light of morning. I hear its wings beat against the ochre and cerulean mist. In 1827, the year Schubert wrote this Impromptu, William Blake died. J.M.W. Turner was entering his golden years. Dorothy;Wordsworth was losing her mind.
Maybe Schubert felt all that death around him when he was composing. Maybe he noticed all those great souls heading to their graves. You can feel it in the Impromptus. Maybe Michael Haneke heard the tempo of death too when he used Schubert’s Impromptus for his 2012 film Amour. In that movie, Emmanuelle Rive plays Anne, an elderly woman who suffers a stroke silently at the breakfast table in front of her husband, Georges. Played by Jean Louis Trintignant, George sees his wife’s face go blank; her body appears momentarily vacant. Anne’s mind escapes her body then, only to return in bits and pieces, disintegrating from the vibrant soul she once was. A former piano teacher, her hands turn limp. She screams in her bed, incomprehensible to anyone, even to herself. No 3 in G-flat major accompanies her slow deterioration. No. 1 in C minor marches throughout Amour (Love).
When I wake up and Schubert’s No. 3 in G-flat major plays, I want to abandon myself to it, dissolve in it. With the sweetness and intensity of a painting by Turner, the music makes me want to fall into it. But if I fall asleep again, I have a back-up plan. Impromptu No. 1 in C minor keys up from my iPhone and hour after the first wake-up Impromptu. The first few notes of No. 1 sound like feet ascending a staircase. When I was a teenager if I slept past my alarm clock, my father used to march up the stairs to get me out of bed. No 1 begins ominously and rises in intensity, just like dad did when he was trying to wake me up.
But another kind of wake-up call rests in my impressions of both Impromptus. A sense of death permeates both pieces. Death is wake-up call too. Every time someone dies, every time I hear about the death of someone I know, it's an opportunity to wake up.
If I grieve properly, a death forces me to wake up to all the contours of myself. Even the death of my dog forced me to be more real. Death reminds me of connection. It extends my soul outward through the memories of myriads of lives. Death wakes up into time, a search for lost time, a longing to not squander it. The depth of grief fully experienced allows me to feel the well of love too.
So when Schubert wakes me up, I wake up to death too. Inside I hear the music begin - the sky begins to light up on the expanse of a dark landscape. Lyricism comes forth. Time marches on to an end through another beginning. All the ambiguity of progression is there. There’s this frequently modulating middle section. That dominant chord and the transition to the main theme. The main theme. The main theme again.
What is the main theme of anyone's life? You can’t always come right out and say it. It’s often more effective play it out in the manner a Schubert Impromptu, to let the tone and themes of life arise, sometimes in surprising ways. Or, it's like moving through innocence and experience in a series of poems by Blake. Or perhaps the theme of life is falling. Whenever I see a painting by Turner, I recover that sense of falling. Or, perhaps the theme lies in a film detailing the paradoxes of ecstasy and agony by Haneke.
Or hell, it’s even in Yes song. Or a line from James Joyce full of yeses, “… yes and then he asked me would I say yes to say yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him and yes…”
What is your wake-up call? Is it “yes”? Or “no.” Or “I don’t know?” Do you have a song to die to? To wake up to – is it the same song that wakes you?
Last week, my teacher died. When I googled the cause of death, it only said, “falling.”
Contemplate someone's death. Make a tribute in your own way, a modern Impromptu. Choose any medium, or combine two or three.