Monday, September 7, 2015

Guest Post: Outline of Messiaen's Musical Language, Part 2

This is the second of a series of three posts on Olivier Messiaen contributed by Ken Fasano. Ken has been a frequent commentator on this blog for quite a while and made such incisive comments on a post on Messiaen that I asked him if he would like to contribute. He responded with three posts! Let's let him introduce himself:

Ken Fasano, b. 1958, Long Island, NY. Started composing at age 11, and was largely self-taught. Studied composition during high school with Albert Tepper, professor at Hofstra, then electronic music with Herb Deutsch (co-inventor of the Moog Synthesizer) at Hofstra (B.S. 1980) and Ursula Mamlok at Manhattan School of Music (M.M.A. 1982). Software Developer since 1982. My musical interests have been mostly in music history, especially the 20th and 21st centuries. I haven't composed much in recent years, instead reading a lot of history (not just music). I usually don't have much to say, musically or otherwise. I prefer to point towards others whose accomplishments I admire. I live currently in West Palm Beach with my wife Cheryl.

Catholicism and Birdsong

Messiaen was a devout Catholic – not just a man who attended Mass regularly, but one who attempted to integrate a sacred outlook in all aspects of his life. An attempt to effectively understand Messiaen’s Catholicism would require a substantial knowledge of Catholic theology and its history, especially the 19th century Catholic response to modernism, the French Renouveau Catholique, and neo-Thomism. There is a book, Messiaen the Theologian, by Andrew Shenton, which addresses this. Unfortunately, at USD$99 on Amazon, it’s out of my budget.

The publisher provides an excerpt:

What is of interest here in a brief survey of Messiaen’s language is how his Catholic faith, his synaesthesia, his interest in ornithology, and his musical interests created a synergistic effect which provides the foundation of his musical language.

“Messiaen regards birdsong as ontologically as well as temporally antecedent to human musical expression, proof of the rootedness of music in God’s created order. Birdsong allows Messiaen to affirm the Catholic theology of creation’s goodness without requiring the restoration of tonality.” [Messiaen the Theologian, 36] Birdsong allows Messiaen to base his music on a non-human, non-humanistic basis, what would later be called an ecological foundation.

Siglind Bruhn, in Messiaen's Contemplations of Covenant and Incarnation (Amazon – USD $34.20), continues with this theme and puts his finger on the central intent of Messiaen’s music: to express the eternal mystery of God in the temporal medium of music. He quotes Pascal Ide, a Parisian priest and scholar of Messiaen’s theology (my bracketed comments):

“Messiaen attempts to make the mystery of God, which is beyond all words [and eternal, beyond time] audible in a language that is itself beyond all words [but in time]: music” [Bruhn, 68]
Messiaen himself speaks of his ornithological interests (en français with English subtitles):

In his notes to Abîme des oiseaux (Abyss of the Birds) from Quartet for the End of Time, Messiaen contrasts the eternal beyond-time absolute of God with the temporal here-and-now of a cold winter in a German prisoner of war camp. Here we find the reason for Messiaen’s joy in the face of the horrors of twentieth century life:

“The abyss is Time, with its sadnesses and weariness. The birds are the opposite of Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant song!”

“For me the only real music has always existed in the sounds of nature,” Messiaen writes. “The harmony of wind in trees, the rhythm of waves on the sea, the timbre of raindrops, of breaking branches, of stone struck together, the different cries of animals, are the true music as far as I am concerned.” Compare Messiaen’s ecological music with John Luther Adams’. I find Messiaen’s concept of ecological music far more profound and developed.

“I am the musician of joy,” Messiaen explains, and he hears joy everywhere, especially in the songs of those “little servants of immaterial joy” he so loves. His birds “sing to the glory of God, and he himself wanted to sing as they do,” his wife Yvonne Loriod said. “All his life Messiaen believed in joy.”

He refers to his Des canyons aux étoiles (From the Canyons to the Stars), as a geological, ornithological, astronomical, and theological composition. So Messiaen does not only anticipate Adams, but even more Stockhausen’s “cosmic music”. Again, I find Messiaen’s concept of cosmic music far more deeply rooted than Stockhausen’s.


Synaesthesia is “a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway” [Wikipedia, “Synaesthesia”].  Messiaen’s type of synaesthesia is “Chromesthesia” - the association of sounds with colors. The colors associated with sounds are called “photisms”. Individuals rarely agree on what color a given sound is.

Among other composers who were synaesthetes were Liszt, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin and Ligeti.

“I see colors when I hear sounds,” Messiaen explained to the French critic Claude Samuel in 1988, “but I don’t see colors with my eyes. I see colors intellectually, in my head.”

His synaesthesia leads – appropriately for a devout Catholic composer – to harmony in stained-glass colors. Messiaen begins to see/hear his harmonies as literally tone-color-harmony-resonance (like Schoenbergs Klangfarbenmelodie), a precursor to the harmonic/timbral combinations of the electronic music his students would compose.

He characterized composers according to the colors that they used in their music.  The music of atonal or serial composers, for example, is black or gray, devoid of coloration. (This, though, is how most people hear it). Conversely, Mozart and Debussy are judged to be exceptional colorists. Indeed, Mozart's use of color, according to Messiaen, is what differentiated him from other classical composers.

Messiaen’s sound colors are complex: "blue-violet rocks, speckled with little grey cubes, cobalt blue, deep Prussian blue, highlighted by a bit of violet-purple, gold, red, ruby, and stars of mauve, black and white. Blue-violet is dominant."

Here’s an interesting paper on Messiaen’s color harmonies:
Color Harmonies and Color Spaces Used by Olivier Messiaen in Couleurs de la cité celeste by Paul Dworak:

Concrete Music

Messiaen is not generally associated with musique concrète. He composed one work of musique concrete, Timbres-durées, in 1952, which was realized by Pierre Henry at the Radiodiffusion Français. He considered this experiment a failure.

Yet musique concrète played a part, not only in his role as a teacher, but in his own music.

“What he wrote was his imagination of birdsongs.”—Pierre Boulez

This page compares actual bird songs with Messiaen’s use of them in his compositions:

Listen to Oiseaux Exotiques:

At 15:35, a bird song is played at an extremely elongated tempo. Since birdsongs consist of inharmonic timbres, it is impossible for acoustic instruments with harmonic timbres to imitate them. Messiaen, while striving for accuracy in his ornithological transcription, makes use of musique concrète techniques out of necessity. Timbre becomes harmony, and is spread over the entire orchestral palette, not just winds (the birdsong filtered and its envelopes modified). Rhythms are elongated. Pitch is transposed up and down over the entire orchestral pitch continuum. In bringing birdsong to orchestral music, Messiaen creates an acoustic musique concrète.

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