Nocturne in Paris | Behind the Scenes
I remember landing at LAX earlier this year, nearly running off the plane once we stopped at the gate. Part of my unusual desire for physical activity that day had to do with my neighboring passenger - a gorgeous indian gentleman who had coughed on me for the entirety of the 14 hour flight. I had spent most of the journey fantasizing about a world where this man never existed and sickness was eradicated. I was also in a hurry because I couldn’t get to a piano fast enough. I had just come from Dubai, where an unexpected composing job had taken me. I had eaten the best Indian food I’d ever had , developed new friendships that I suspect will last a lifetime, and played a perfectly tuned grand piano next to the ocean as the sun set over Abu Dhabi… during a sandstorm. Things which are all unlikely to ever happen again in that particular order. Someday the story of this trip will be ready to be told in its entirety, but for now, the one that matters most is the one that was birthed in the form of a melody at that piano in Abu Dhabi. That melody stayed with me… haunted me. It circulated relentlessly in my subconscious looking for a way out.
When I write, I want the sound I hear to be something I am inside of instead of simply something that’s inside of me. When the vibrations of the instrument hit my body, I am allowed to explore the world of the song from its insides. I’ve never understood how some composers can sketch out entire ideas they’ve got rolling around in their heads on an airplane.You know what I’m talking about? Laptop open, body compressed into the shape of an egg, sketching ideas down on a MIDI keyboard the size of a banana. It’s a tragedy - like drinking Gevrey Chambertin from a wine glass with a ridge on it. That’s not me. When I write, I need a piano. Something mysterious happens in front of a piano that doesn’t happen in front of plastic.
The nearest piano happened to be in Malibu, which is really just an ugly township near a polluted ocean that needs to be entirely rebuilt…my expectations were low. My friend Erik Lauer allowed me to set up my rig at one of the worst homes I’ve ever visited. It had a Picasso hanging on the wall and 1946 Armagnac in the liquor cabinet. And don’t get me started on the Steinway in the living area…clearly a replica. How could I possibly create in a prison such as this?
Within a few hours of working through the feel of the chords and melodic lines, I had sketched everything into my software and set up mics for acoustic recording. Then the talent arrived. Chris Coleman (cello) and Bonnie Brooksbank (violin) are dangerous musicians. Their performances often terrify and seduce simultaneously. It’s like getting kidnapped by Aslan…at first you’re only aware that you’ve been taken by a lion. But then, you surrender to the beauty of his eyes. You begin to realize all Aslan wants to do is take you to a Christmas feast.
The song grew wings and flew away from me that afternoon - the great hope of any composer. The idea was finally out, but it sounded far better than anything I had been hearing in my head. I went to sleep listening to the demo, wondering how on earth this had happened. It’s the first time I had a song written and recorded in a single day. I’m not used to music moving that fast. The writing and recording process is usually a knock down drag out fight, and though the time involved can usually create the necessary space for the song to grow, I typically overcomplicate the song at some point along the way. As the song sits over weeks and months, I usually become tempted to fill every space and every silence with a new idea.
So this time, I decided to do nothing. For 6 months I did nothing. Nocturne in Paris became an exercise in restraint after I left Malibu. I began to write the other songs that were part of “Chasm” instead. What I recorded in Malibu sat in its raw, un-pitch corrected form for months. Nothing changed time. Position. Pitch. I could have released it as it was and died happy.
The truth is that this is not my natural tendency. My tendency is to add more to a song each time I open its session. “Oh, this would sound really good with a quintet… a chamber section… a Steinway!” The final iteration you hear of Nocturne escaped this probing. It is rather intimate - I wanted it to have a romantic delicacy to it. I wanted Nocturne to sound the way Paris feels. But the silly problem with Paris is that it’s a bit of a polarizing experience; each of us who have been often mean very different things when we talk about our experience in the city of light. So rather than try to make the song broad enough to include everyone’s collective experience, I made it personal enough for you to feel what I felt . It’s a song about what happens in my heart every time I walk through Le Marais.
After many months in silence, I brought the song out into the open again. I applied felt to my upright Boston piano and recorded the melodies and progressions in different tempos than what we had come up with in Malibu (not by much, but enough to warrant an entirely new recording session at Scott Frankfurt Studio in Woodland Hills, CA). Chris and Bonnie came in (again) and we re-recorded the same lines they had already given to me, except this time with much better equipment and in much more clarity. I walked away with 120-150 takes of the melodies to sort through, but I didn’t care about the editing that lay in front of me. I remember feeling the same transcendence in that session I felt in the original Malibu session. Once I knew we had captured the feel, I felt the burden lift. The thing was done.
When I hear the song now, I feel at times that I’m falling into an endless rest - a deep mystery. A groundless ground inside a depthless depth. My hope is that it takes you far beyond the memories that inspired it into your own. May it come to you as freely and playfully as it came to me. It’s my gift to you…Quentin, I hope you find deep rest. This song is my gift to you.