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.”


E-Musikgruppe Lux Ohr – Kometenbahn

e-musikgruppe_lux_ohr-kometenbahnThe most immediate comparisons E-Musikgruppe Lux Ohr will attract are to Tangerine Dream and other “cosmic” bands of the 1970s, but while the technique of this trancelike electronic waveform fits that description, its composition reflects on something more like the “chill-out” albums of the middle 1980s.

Kometenbahn uses many of the same samples and sounds as old Tangerine Dream. The Moog keyboards intermix with the highly sequenced percussive synthesizer that keeps time, and lengthy and intricate guitar solos use the same distortion and tuning. Even the studio sound is very similar.

How E-Musikgruppe Lux Ohr differs from the cosmic musicians however is in structure. This music is built more like the 1980s techno and chill-out albums, like the KLF’s album titled after the genre, than the 1970s bands. The electronic acts of the 1970s had a lot more in common with progressive rock, and so structured each song around either a set classical form, or as an adaptation to the content being expressed.

In contrast, more like the 80s material Kometenbah is composed in layers shaped around a central circular structure. This is not verse-chorus, but more linear, with the idea that one alternating pattern attracts others and then variations are made to those to tweak intensity and build up an experience of their atmosphere and immersion of mood.

This album offers powerful stuff to those who love ambient music. It is a feast of sounds, textures and rhythms. While it does not use the cosmic song forms of Tangerine Dream and friends, it produces a more contemporary atmosphere of suspension of disbelief and exploration of not a labyrinth, but deepening detail of an intensely ornate and beautiful object.