Saturday, November 19, 2011

All the Things We Are: Learning from Messiaen

At age 8 I began composing short vignettes for clarinet and trumpet, which I titled ‘symphonies’. When I turned 11, my grandmother bought me a beat-up spinet for $300, and I took to it like a fish to water. Soon afterwards my guinea pig Apollo died, my mom – observing my grief – suggested that I memorialize my deceased pet with an original piece of music. Thus A Pig, op. 1 was born, a combination of the Moonlight Sonata (in 5/4 time), Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C#minor, a Joplin rag, and Martha My Dear. The following summer I attended music camp for the first time and witnessed a concert that changed my life forever. A pianist – probably an ambitious conservatory student who happened to be on the camp staff – performed two movements from Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus, and I was thoroughly enchanted by the glorious, epic sound. I clearly recall glancing down at the program where I spotted the composer’s name listed – Olivier Messiaen. I had never heard of him, and only had a vague idea what a living composer was, but I remember thinking that it was the most beautiful music I had ever heard. “Whatever that guy does,” I decided then and there, “That’s the job I want to do when I grow up.”

Subsequently I began to compose a whole host of chamber music, mostly for my friends – Andrea, Rafael, Aaron, Rachel – short pieces for my woodwind quintet, and eventually pieces for my youth orchestra and high-school jazz band and wind ensemble. I regularly visited the public library and returned with armfuls of LPs from the contemporary music – as many records as they would allow me to take; I voraciously absorbed all sorts of new sounds – the complete works of Webern (conducted by Craft), Berg’s Violin Concerto and Wozzeck, Ives Fourth Symphony, Ligeti Chamber Concerto, Xenakis Pithoprakta, Britten’s War Requiem, not to mention the electronic music of Babbitt, Stockhausen, Ussachevsky, Leuning, Schaeffer, the American symphonists – Harris, Hanson, Porter – and the following generation – Martino, Schuman, Mennin, Persichetti, Carter, Kirchner – the New York school of Cage, Feldman, Brown, South American composers like Chávez, Revueltas, Ginastera, and Villa-Lobos.

However, Messiaen’s music remained my prime obsession; I listened to all of the recorded works I could get my hands on. In college I began to learn the less difficult movements of the Vingt regards on piano and eventually wrote a 90-page analysis for the N.E.H. of his epic piano solo La fauvette des jardins. After graduating I bummed around in Paris, playing on the streets, hoping one day to catch a glimpse of Messiaen improvising at the Église de la Trinité, but I was eventually informed by the brusque clerk at the Église that «le maître» rarely performed anymore. A disappointed stalker, I contented myself with rehashing jazz standards outside the Place des vosges, until one day my horn got stolen and I abandoned Paris to work on a goat farm in Languedoc-Roussillon. But that’s a whole other story…

And Messiaen - what is it about his music that is so attractive to young composers? I have often wondered, since many of my colleagues have mentioned being drawn to Turangalîla or the Quatour pour la fin du temps at an early age. Perhaps it is because his music is very direct, the harmonic and rhythmic language so clear and consistent. Melody, too – as in Stravinsky’s music – is ever-present, often manifesting itself as an incarnation of plainchant or birdsong.

There is also a child-like quality to Messiaen’s music. In saying this, I make a distinction between childish and child-like, childish meaning silly or immature, and child-like meaning playful and full of wonder. Writing music involves at least some sense of play, often in the form of experimentation. And Messiaen never ceases to discover, combining disparate, seemingly unrelated ingredients in his musical recipes. In conversation, Dutilleux characterized Messiaen as «presque un naïf», a person – and a composer – free from artifice and pretense. Messiaen’s music seems blissfully free from self-consciousness, immune to “anxiety of influence” and other such destructive and soul-sucking mindsets. He plays – with birdsong, with Hindu rhythms and Javanese textures, with natural scenic landscapes, with Tristan, with colors, with Japanese Gagaku court ritual, and yes, with spirituality. He is neither flippant nor capricious about his faith; rather, he is comfortable enough with it to express it straightforwardly in musical language – from literal scripture to abstract contemplations of arcane Catholic philosophy, from plainchant to fugue to obscure liturgical references.

It should therefore be unsurprising that Messiaen was able to clearly articulate his distilled musical language in the 1942 treatise Technique de mon langage musicale. His ability – his need – to combine and blend these far-flung influences was framed by a rigorous harmonic, rhythmic, and modal/melodic context. Like Bartók before him, he found it useful to analyze and systematize the various aspects (technique) of his musical language – including rhythmic patterns and pitch ordering. By examining more deeply the structure of his music, he was able to concretize and codify his very instincts. It strikes me as completely natural that Messiaen – due to the rigor and clarity of his thinking – ended up both discovering serialism and then immediately abandoning it as an insufficient and inherently flawed mode of expression. Surely it was a universe too generic, sterile, and restricted for this quirky and musically irreverent soul.

What can we artists learn from a composer as idiosyncratic as Messiaen, a musician whose compositional process and influences were so unorthodox? I believe that it is more fruitful to take a broader view of his creativity than it is to study his color-mapping and theological ruminations, entertaining though they may be. Messiaen was a composer who joyfully followed his own instincts and inspirations; he twisted and mashed them together, molding utterly original shapes. However eclectic both the basic components and the resultant forms may have seemed to others, to him they complemented each other harmoniously. Perhaps from Messiaen we can learn that there is value and vitality in embracing all the worlds to which we are inextricably drawn. That finding a personal ‘voice’ lies less in a search for as-yet-unmapped-territory than in permitting that mysterious and joyful brew of disparate, possibly unrelated, elements which comprise the totality of that which we love to rise to the surface – engendering, via a clear formal structure, a unique and wholly original contribution.