Olivier Messiaen plays Olivier Messiaen (1956)

Olivier Messiaen about 1940 at the console of the Cavaillé-Coll-organ St.Trinité in Paris

Olivier Messiaen about 1940 at the console of the Cavaillé-Coll-organ St.Trinité in Paris

Famously noted for having claimed that he saw colors when listening to music, Olivier Messiaen was born very early in the 20th century (1908) and was one of the last in a bastard’s litter of composers to be caught in the crossfire between a lingering romantic spirit and modernist aesthetics. This extremely vivid perception of musical tones and his fondness for birds and their songs were, doubtless, a great influence on his methodical choice for musical language. This includes his own compiled and defined modes of limited transposition. These existed before but he was the first to compile them and examine their boundaries and relationships exhaustively.

Hanging in an interesting intersection of the concentrated meditations of Ildjarn Landscapes, Tangerine Dream’s and Klaus Schulze’s early improvisation-like soundscapes and the latter’s methodic motific constructions, Messiaen’s organworks such as Les Corps Glorieux anticipates them all and brings them together in a very personal language. Appart from that, we find passages that could be taken from the most bizarre organ fantasias dreamed of by Baroque or Romantic composers. What is special about these works is the convincing power with which he brings all this together without falling into the modern tendency of classical music to twist around and transform ideas so quickly the listener barely has time to be submerged in them.

In contrast, his music lingers in the ecstatic wonder that we might guess was induced by an appreciation of nature and its patterns as the grand work of the Judeo-Christian god as per his Roman Catholic beliefs. The exact source of it is not important, but the state of mind achieved in silent and inner introspection and  outwardly-projected contemplation is transmitted in these organworks through a plethora of distinct techniques that Messiaen manipulate without incurring in an overcrowding of any particular piece. But even when a comparison between movements is done, the nature of the whole work is not disrupted, all come under an intent, even though each of these is an idea of its own. While any can lump compositions and songs in an album or title and call it a day, in Messiaen’s different organworks we find the perfect example of  works as expressions of ideas in episodes. Integral works that divide individual ideas into self-contained movements.

The recordings of 1956 are said to suffer from audo-technical problems even for the recording technology of the time. A hiss is present here and there, and not all tones are captured in the pristine way that classical music audiophiles fantasize about. In addition to that, the way Olivier Messiaen himself plays his works on the organ is criticized heavily by some, arguing that he is not a real organist. This is quite a statement given that he held a post as an organist at a church for decades. The third condition that affects the recording is that the organ is said to be out of tune, with some pipes diverging slightly from how they should sound. In my personal opinion, given the nature and character of Messiaen’s music, and the fact that he wrote the pieces for that precise organ, the imperfect condition of the instrument is perfect for the performance. His talents are more than enough, as he composed and feels the music he gave birth to, filling it with  expression in rubato and more as it flows through and out of him. The subpar recording and defects in hiss and what not only add to the eery atmosphere of mixed wonder and dread that probably represents the Christian fear of God. Love and admiration and extreme fear mixed together in irreconcilable battle for primacy in an endless cycle that fades into eternity.

The following is a three-part series of articles discussing this performance and contain links to horribly-tagged mp3 files of the 1956 performance of the composer’s works by himself:

Olivier Messiaen plays Olivier Messiaen part 1

Olivier Messiaen plays Olivier Messiaen part 2

Olivier Messiaen plays Olivier Messiaen part 3

While he was instrumental in the academic exploration of his techniques (he compiled two treatises: the later one in five volumes was substantially complete when he died and was published posthumously), and was himself a master of music analysis, he considered the development and study of techniques to be a means to intellectual, aesthetic and emotional ends. Thus Messiaen maintained that a musical composition must be measured against three separate criteria: it must be interesting, beautiful to listen to, and it must touch the listener.”



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Good Taste, not Gimmick

Many different artists have sought to bring instrumentation that is unconventional to the genres they work in, be it metal, the folk music of a certain region, rap or   European classical music of a certain period. Oftentimes, these unusual choices in instrumentation are made with the intention of bringing in an element of novelty to the music. In other cases, it has been done because the picture, concept or sound in the artist’s mind can only, to him, be portrayed by making use of an imported medium.

When playing any instrument, though, it is paramount that the sonic qualities of its output, its strengths and weaknesses, are inventoried.  This permits us to wield instruments of different kinds with not only efficacy but efficiency. Unusual instrumentation and unusual usage of conventional instrumentation (e.g. the prepared piano) became a trend, almost a hallmark, of post-modernist 20th century music. This way of treating the way each instrument is played and how we focus on using its power rather than forcing it on its weak side, is referred to as playing an instrument idiomatically.
20th Century Minimalism arose as a peaceful revolution against the saturated and purposefully inaccessible music that classical music had become. Now, a lot of very different things are dubbed minimalism so that this term is more of a descriptor than a genre name. The idea is that minimalism reduces instrumentation, technique and expression to the most indispensable by stripping down willingly, rather than by building in its sense of belonging, as Beethoven would have done. This is why minimalism-oriented works can provide us with a most clear visage of how to make use of a musical instrument’s power appropriately.

Although not an official or strictly minimalist work, Olivier Messiaen‘s Vingt Regards Sur L’enfant-Jésus takes us through a strange spirit-journey attempting to bridge the gap between our everyday selves and our inner souls. Influences on this work range from the evident Debussy, to Machaut and even to Greek metrics.

Contemplation of the child-God of the manger and (others) contemplating Him: from the inexpressible contemplation of God the Father to the manifold contemplations of the Church of Love, passing through the unbelievable contemplation of the Spirit of Joy, through the tender contemplation of the Virgin, then the Angels, the Wise Men, and of the incorporeal or symbolic creatures (time, heights, silence, the star, the cross).

The star and the cross have the same theme because one opens Jesus’ life on earth and the other closes it. The Theme of God clearly returns in the Contemplation of the Father, the Contemplation of the Son Upon the Son, and the Contemplation of the Spirit of Joy, in By Him All Has Been Made, in The Kiss of the Infant Jesus; it is present in The First Communion of the Virgin (she carried Jesus in her body), it is rendered glorious in The Contemplation of the Church of Love, which is the body of Christ. This is aside from the songs of birds, carillons, spirals, stalactites, galaxies, photons, and texts by Dom Columba Marmion, Saint Thomas, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Theresa of Lisieux, and the Gospels and Missal that influenced me. A Theme of Chords circles from one piece to another, fragmented or concentrated into a rainbow; one also sees rhythmic canons, polymodalities, non-retrogradable rhythms amplified in both senses, rhythms progressively accelerated or slowed, asymmetrical enlargements, shifts of register, etc. The writing for piano is quite eclectic: inverted arpeggios, resonances, contrasting features. Dom Columba Marmion (The Christ in His Mysteries) and, after him, Maurice Toesca (The Twelve Contemplations) spoke of the contemplation of the shepherds, the angels, the Virgin, and of the Heavenly Father; I brought back the same idea in a slightly different manner, adding sixteen new contemplations. More than in any of my previous works, I sought a language of mystical love, at once varied, powerful, and tender, sometimes brutal, in multicolored arrangements.

(December 10, 1908 – April 28, 1992)

Erik Satie‘s piano works are also not strictly considered part of minimalism as a movement, but they are a recognized precursor to it, probably in the same way that Debussy’s are. From Gymnopédies and Gnossienne to Satie’s Nocturne and his Sarabande, these piano works are as familiar as they are eerie. Just as the most disturbing images to the human mind involve figures that are almost human but not quite human. There is just enough for you to recognize them, but also just enough for you to find them possibly threatening, but not entirely so. The power of his music lies in the use of emotional uncertainty at focal points. So it is that Satie shows us a world both familiar and alien.

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