Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Guest Post: Outline of Messiaen's Musical Language, Part 3

This is the third and last 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.

World music and modernism

Previous use of non-western influences in Western art tended towards orientalism or exoticism: Picasso’s use of African masks, Debussy’s pentatonicism, Stravinsky’s borrowing of Lithuanian folk songs, Ruth St Denis’ dance. The non-western influence was used on purpose for its foreign connotations. Messiaen is one of the first composers to integrate non-western influence into his artistic language – both in his rhythmic language and in his percussion writing, reminiscent of gamelan.

“Messiaen discovered the 120 deçî-tâlas of Śarńgadeva, a thirteenth-century Indian musician, through their reproduction in Lavignac's Encyclopédie de la musique.  … Messiaen studied and assimilated these Hindu rhythmic formulas into his musical language. In sum, he interpreted them as arising from the free multiplication of a short note value. Furthermore, Messiaen derived his principles of the added value, inexact augmentation, and non-retrogradable rhythms from his study of deçî-tâlas.” [Symposium – see post 1] - Messiaen by Robert Sherlaw Johnson lists the deci-talas in an appendix.

The term “deci-tala” refers to a Carnatic (south Indian) form of rhythmic theory; there are two primary Indian musical systems – the Hindustani (northern) and the Carnatic (southern). (Ravi Shankar was a practitioner of the Hindustani style).

Messiaen’s use of tala is primarily as rhythmic cells, analogous in a way to the use of pitch cells in the early atonality of Schoenberg and Webern; just as the use of pitch cells coalesced into Schoenberg’s twelve-tone theory, Messiaen’s use of tala-based rhythmic cells coalesced into the rhythmic cells of Boulez’ First Piano Sonata, then into the rhythmic modes of Messiaen’s Mode de valeurs et d'intensités, then into total serialism.

Benitez goes into great detail in this regard in Stravinsky and the End of Musical Time: Messiaen’s Analysis of The Rite and Its Impact on Twentieth-Century Music:
http://www.personal.psu.edu/vpb2/Vincent_Benitez_Personal_Web_Site_files/Benitez1.pdf

Messiaen’s use of modes of limited transposition is well known. The following chart shows the seven modes with their intervals as a numerical array, as well as the number of transpositions and sub-modes in each.

Whole tone = 2; semitone = 1

Mode
Name
Intervals
Transpositions
Modes
1
Whole tone
2,2,2,2,2,2
2
1
2
Octatonic
1,2,1,2,1,2,1,2
3
2
3

2,1,1,2,1,1,2,1,1
4
3
4

1,1,3,1,1,1,3,1
6
4
5

1,4,1,1,4,1
6
3
6

2,2,1,1,2,2,1,1
6
4
7

1,1,1,2,1,1,1,1,2,1
6
5

A fruitful 21st century approach to analysis of Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition might be one which incorporates the mathematics of ring or group theory. It seems the entire spectrum of harmonic usage from Renaissance modality, to classical tonality, to 20th century modality (including Messiaen’s) to atonality and serialism, might be subsumed into one theory based on ring or group theory.

A Smile!

While in the middle of composing Éclairs sur l'Au-Delà (1988–92) – almost, but not quite, his final statement – Messiaen wrote Un Sourire (1989). Here is the Orchestre de l'Opéra Bastille  conducted by Myung Whun Chung:

[video may not be available in all regions]

Un Sourire (A Smile) was Messiaen's last commissioned work and his contribution to the celebrations of Mozart's bicentenary in 1991. Explaining how the work honored Mozart, Messiaen wrote: "Despite bereavements, sufferings, hunger, cold, incomprehension and the proximity of death, Mozart still smiled, his music also. That is why I allowed myself, in all humility, to call my act of homage 'A smile.'"

“I accepted [the commission} because I love and admire Mozart. … I said to myself: Mozart always had many enemies. He was hungry, cold, almost all his children died, his wife was ill, he knew only tragedy … And he always smiled. In his music and in his life. So I too tried to smile, and I composed Un Sourire, a little piece lasting nine minutes, without pretentiousness, which I hope … smiles!”
This is covered in full in Messiaen's Final Works by Christopher Philip Dingle:

https://books.google.com/books?id=K2ebDUfcZwQC&pg=PA113&lpg=PA113&dq=messiaen+un+sourire+mozart&source=bl&ots=0I2Q1BWf99&sig=47kztcdBATdUMRfoGad4t6N2pvM&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CCoQ6AEwAmoVChMIgajpsqPWxwIVRZENCh12RQL4#v=onepage&q=messiaen%20un%20sourire%20mozart&f=false

How to write music of joy and hope, not music of despair, in a time of despair, while at the same time being fully modern, while at the same time embracing deeply traditional values —this may be Messiaen’s greatest teaching for 21st century composers.

Messiaen utilizes dissonant chromatic harmony with the full spectrum of color, not the gray dullness of most serialism (Moses und Aron comes to mind). It is easy to write dissonant music to remind ourselves how bad things are (although in some ways things have never been so good, at least for those of us who are living above a certain economic level).

It is far more of an achievement to have lived through two world wars in one’s own country and write complex, dissonant music that expresses joy and hope, and to have done it for sixty years.
It is Messiaen’s Catholic faith that leads him in this direction; it is his God-given talents that enable him to do so (program notes about one’s environmental creds are merely facile excuses for non-talent). Could a non-Catholic worldview also lead in the same direction? Of course – a worldview that encourages engagement in the world, but goes beyond the temporal and impermanent, striving to communicate the eternal via the temporal art of music. With all the spiritual technologies available to us in the 21st century (the real ones with a solid foundation, not woo-woo new age nonsense), a Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Native American world view would serve just as well as Messiaen’s Catholicism. The missing ingredient, though, is a talent as great as Messiaen’s, carefully nurtured by an educational system with great teachers such as Dukas, Widor, and Emmanuel. Is that possible anymore? No matter what, WE MUST TRY!


4 comments:

Ken Fasano said...

I have started writing a Java app to enumerate all the modes of limited transposition (including those that Messiaen may have omitted), eventually to include non 12-tone equal temperament scales.

Adriano Barate and Luca A. Ludovico have already created such an app, described in their paper "Generalizing Messiaen’s Modes of Limited Transposition to a n-tone Equal Temperament." I highly recommend the paper:

http://www.ludovico.net/download/papers/SMC2015.pdf

and the app, which is written in Javascript:

http://www.lim.di.unimi.it/messiaen/

It's quite impressive, given that it shows the ring-theoretical analysis graphically! It seems to use an algorithm similar to the one I use, but it is difficult to follow the code because it doesn't follow MVC (model-view-controller).

Bryan Townsend said...

Ken, I think I would like to do a post on Messiaen's technique from a musicological rather than theoretical point of view.

And thanks again for these three excellent discussions!

Ken Fasano said...

Thank you for the opportunity! I look forward to your post on Messiaen's technique from a musicological point of view...

Bryan Townsend said...

Ken, I think that your series of posts on Messiaen was a great success! Looking forward to doing something similar again sometime.