Saturday, December 5, 2015

Getting Messiaen Wrong

One of the earliest posts on this blog, way back in October, 2011, talked about an art installation that used plants to generate sounds. The post was The Music of Plants and I took the opportunity to make a number of aesthetic points. An anonymous commentator added an excellent argument:
Pick a random Beethoven piano sonata. Then pick another random Beethoven sonata different from the first one. Now play them simultaneously by turning on two CD players at the same time. What you get is NOT another Beethoven sonata: rather, what you get is garbage.
But if you try the same experiment with John Cage, you get another perfectly acceptable John Cage piece. There has to be a music rule against that. Playing in parallel two random works of music should not give you another work of music.
Re. music from nature, Messiaen drew inspiration from birdsong. As country singers did from freight trains. Nature is not art but it is a tremendous source of inspiration.
I'm talking about this because I just ran across an interesting article in the Globe and Mail about a current art installation in Montreal: "A new kind of birdsong: Blending zebra finches with electric guitars." The writer, Robert Everett-Green used to be the Globe's classical music critic, back when they had one, so he makes some good observations:
French composer Olivier Messiaen wrote many birdsongs into his music, including the “optimistic and triumphant” call of the crimson-winged finch. A pet-shop cousin of that bird, the zebra finch, appears in a sound installation at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, not just as a notated presence but as the star performer.
The piece is called from here to ear, and it features more than 70 zebra finches making unpredictable music with 14 Gibson electric guitars. French artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot replicated the birds’ sandy grassland habitat in a white cube-like room, and bolted 10 Les Paul Studio guitars and four Thunderbird basses onto waist-high metal stands, string side up. Fourteen amps have been set with enough distortion that just a touch of the strings makes a sound, sometimes a large one. As the birds settle on a string, fidget around, take off and resettle on another string, the room fills with a collage of rock-guitar sound.
So, like all art installations that purport to produce "music" it is a random soundscape of noises. It resembles music the way an actor randomly shouting nonsense syllables at you resembles a Shakespeare play.

Birds themselves, as Messiaen observed, do sing and their songs are organized in interesting ways, so much so that he considered them not only music, but a manifestation of the music inherent in creation. Sadly, this current installation has little interest in the music of the zebra finch:
The one thing you don’t hear much at from here to ear is the song of the zebra finch. It’s less melodic and more percussive than that of Messiaen’s crimson-winged specimen, but like its relative, the male zebra finch will sing all day, in hopes that its flamboyant performance will lead to sex. In rock band terms, it’s a born lead singer. How surprising that Boursier-Mougenot made his birds into low-functioning rhythm guitarists, whose acoustic backup singing is almost completely swamped. 
It is also probably the case that these poor zebra finches are being driven mad by the cacophony of all these electric guitars. Can we call PETA at least?

It is a kind of musical dunderheadedness to drown out the actual song of a bird with random electronic sounds and it is certainly not the kind of thing that Messiaen would think was music. What he did was allow himself to be inspired by actual bird song which he incorporated into a lot of his music.

Let's have a couple of clips. First some of the zebra finch:

And here is the last piece in Messiaen's Catalogue d'Oiseaux, Le courlis cendré (curlew):


Marc Puckett said...
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Marc Puckett said...

'It is also probably the case that these poor zebra finches are being driven mad by the cacophony of all these electric guitars. Can we call PETA at least?' Ha. I've a vague recollection of this sort of thing-- birds landing randomly on stringed instruments?-- done by some other artist or artists but can't make that connexion work.

(This link [] takes you to a fairly recent recording of the Eurasian curlew, the courlis cendré.)

Bryan Townsend said...

Welcome back to the melee, Marc and, ahem, seasons greetings!

Where do you find these things? In the Globe article he talks about Messiaen's use of the crimson-winged finch, but I can't find any reference to that particular bird in Messiaen's commentaries on his music. I might have missed it.

Reading about these installations and even listening to some avant-garde music it strikes me that the artists are consciously avoiding making any aesthetic judgments: in a very basic way they don't care how it sounds. Which is the difference between them and Dutilleux.

Marc Puckett said...

Perhaps it is cared that the final... composition sound 'right', which of course is nothing but pure subjectivity, the Zeitgeist, the arts reviewers, 'what's selling'. (My comparatively brief excursion into that world, in the late 90s, of Art, was in the milieu of painters, visual artists. When all you've got is 'it looks right at last!', well, that is only an aesthetic judgment by courtesy, maybe.

Bryan Townsend said...

We composers, whatever we claim, at the end of the day, work by intuition.