Reviewed by Johan Palme on 9th December, 2018
Whether strolling around stores or on your local seasonal radio station, it’s very likely that you’ll have heard easy listening Christmas music. But have you ever heard the opposite, Christmas music that’s difficult to listen to?
This collection of live Pierre Cochereau improvisations is precisely that. Recorded over a six year span in the late sixties and early seventies on the organ of Notre Dame de Paris, this is abrasive, atonal, and astonishingly grand. With perfect fidelity, the gargantuan sound machine rears its full imposing power, rarely finding the safety of a tonal centre. Familiar melodies like “Adeste Fidelis” are destroyed to the core, turned from merry to daunting existential horror.
Pierre Cochereau is possibly the greatest organ improviser of all time, and he’s able to push out an impressive amount of sheer force. Each improvised variation gives way to a more massive one, occasionally fleeting teasingly into harmony, occasionally just overwhelming your senses with noise. Some of it almost seems derived from experimental electronic music, layers of shifting sound gelling and ungelling and making sure you’re never fully home.
And yet, somehow, it still feels like it’s appropriate for the season. There’s a history of the terrifying and the spiritually overwhelming as part of the heady mix of emotions that make up Christmas. The seasonal traditions support it, both the Christian ones with the child that hides all the power in the world and the pagan ones with blood, fire and awe. And feeling the sheer power of that grand organ while walking through winter blizzards and cooped-up in candle-lit rooms is sometimes spine-tinglingly good. It’s not something you put on as background music during Christmas dinner, but not everything has to be.
The version in the links below is an expanded 1990s CD version with three additional tracks. Purists will go only for tracks 2, 3 and 6 that appeared on the 1972 release, but the recordings are all done separately and aside from the bland “Christmas Communion” they’re all of equally high quality and worth hearing.