Messiaen’s transcendent éclairs

Messiaen

At a certain remove from recent excursions in Persian chamber music or northern soul

To follow the monumental orchestral works Turangalîla and Des canyons aux étoiles, the other day I went to hear S-Simon Rattle conducting the LSO in Messiaen‘s final masterpiece Éclairs sur l’au-delà …, and it’s every bit as enthralling. *

Programme notes here; BBC Radio 3 broadcast here (for a limited time—unlike Eternal Life).

The title translates as “Illuminations of the beyond” or “Lightning over the beyond”; for éclairs, “epiphanies” seems to work well too. Written from 1988 to 1991, the piece was commissioned by the New York Phil and first performed by them in 1992 under Zubin Mehta, shortly after the composer’s death.

The recordings of Myung Whun Chung with the Orchestre de l’Opéra Bastille (1994), and S-Simon with the Berlin Phil (2004) are much praised. On YouTube the former appears movement by movement, starting here. Here’s a continuous version from Sylvain Cambreling, enhanced by some well-chosen visual images:

But as always, it’s even more immersive to hear it live. First S-Simon came on stage alone to introduce the work, a personal touch to prepare us for the enormity of the experience.

Like listening to Bach, whatever our relationship with Christianity (under the Messiaen tag, note also The right kind of spirituality?), it’s a deeply moving, ecstatic work—the unique melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic language of Messiaen’s spiritual vision achieved here without piano or ondes martenot. The movements are:

Apparition du Christ glorieux (Apparition of the glorious Christ)
La constellation du Sagittaire (The constellation of Sagittarius)
L’oiseau-lyre et la ville-fiancée (The lyrebird and the bridal city)
Les élus marqués du sceau (The elected ones marked with the seal)
Demeurer dans l’amour … (To abide in love …)
Les Sept Anges aux sept trompettes (The seven angels on the seven trumpets)
Et Dieu essuiera toute larme de leurs yeux … (And God will wipe every tear from their eyes …)
Les étoiles et la gloire (The stars and the glory)
Plusieurs oiseaux des arbres de vie (Several birds of the trees of life)
Le chemin de l’invisible (The way of the invisible)
Le Christ, lumière du Paradis (The Christ, light of paradise)

Following the hieratic opening brass chorale, the piece is majestic, sensuous, and exhilarating. As ever, the divine messages of birdsong punctuate the work—Plusieurs oiseaux des arbres de vie, with avian wind soloists dispersed around the hall, was glorious. Confession: in some of the faster passages with zany xylophone I can’t help hearing echoes of Tom and Jerry

Like the solo movements for cello and violin of the Quatuor pour la fin du temps, in addition to the intensity of Demeurer dans l’amour (a slow central movement akin to the Jardin du sommeil d’amour in Turangalîla), the finale is another long, slow, sustained meditation for luminous strings, now with the distant halo of a triangle. Brilliant playing throughout the orchestra!

Éclairs sur l’au-delà … is just overwhelming. Like Turangalîla, never miss the opportunity to hear it in live performance!

 

* I’m generally most attached to the ellipsis (…), but here it plays the exalted role of symbolizing the infinite. Note for pedants like me: the ellipsis in the French title is indeed preceded by a space, which seems to be less common in French style than in English. “But that’s not important right now“.

 

More Messiaen at the Proms

 

messiaen

I spare no efforts to remind everyone of Messiaen‘s astounding Turangalîlabut an equally monumental (if rather less catchy) later orchestral masterpiece is his Des canyons aux étoiles (1974), which I attended at Sunday’s Prom, hot on the heels of the NYO concert.

Composed “to Glorify God in the Beauties of His Creations; from the colours of the earth and the songs of the birds to the colours of the stars and the Resurrected Ones in Heaven”, it was inspired by the canyons of Utah. It features a vertiginous solo horn part (notably the sixth movement “Interstellar call”) alongside piano cadenzas with Messiaen’s signature birdsong. The mystical intimacy of “The resurrected and the song of the star Aldebaran” makes a tranquil centrepiece, akin to the enchanted Jardin du sommeil d’amour in Turangalîla.

Again, short of staging it at Bryce Canyon itself, the Royal Albert Hall makes a rather suitable venue. Given the work’s cosmic dimensions, it uses quite modest forces, with percussion prominent—notably xylorimba and glockenspiel, aeoliphone wind machine and geophone sand machine, with impressive solos from Nicolas Hodges (piano) and Martin Owen (horn). Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra really know their way around this kind of music. Indeed, the orchestra did the first UK performance under Boulez in 1975.

Utah

Here’s a 2002 recording conducted by Myung-Whun Chung:

And here are the titles in English:

Part 1
The desert
The orioles
What is written in the stars
The white-browed robin-chat
Cedar Breaks and the gift of awe

Part 2
Interstellar call
Bryce Canyon and the red-orange rocks

Part 3
The resurrected and the song of the star Aldebaran
The mockingbird
The wood thrush
Omao, leiothrix, ‘elepaio, shama
Zion Park and the celestial city

For more Messiaen, see tag—not least Saint François d’Assise, and Éclairs sur l’au-delà …

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is music a universal language?

 

What is music, anyway?
And who’s asking?

Nettl

Ethnomusicologists have long questioned the seductive idea—derived from 19th-century Europe and latterly popular with the peace-and-love brigade—that music is a global language transcending the conventions of time and space. As always,

  • Bruno NettlThe study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions (3rd edition, 2015, augmenting his original 1983 version),

gives a masterly and accessible overview of the field, in chapters 2, 3 and 5—and indeed passim.

In Ch.2 he notes the wide range of definitions among societies of what constitutes “music”:

There is no conceptualization of definition of music that is shared by all or perhaps even many cultures, and very few societies have a concept (and a term) precisely parallel to the word “music”. They may instead have taxonomies whose borders cut across the universe of sounds produced by humans (or even animals) in ways quite different from those of Western societies.
[…]
Fieldworkers early on learn this major lesson: they may get one kind of answer when asking a question that would normally have no place in the culture and another when observing the society’s behavior. And we may note rather different approaches in formal statements by authorities, informal interviews, and ordinary conversations. Of the three, the cocktail party conversation may give us the most reliable perspective on the way urban, middle-class Americans actually use the concept of music in their lives.

The perspective of the (“gluttonous, insatiable”) ethnomusicologist is broader than that of a cultural insider—itself, as he observes, an ethnocentric approach, though, always broad-minded, he approves of a plurality of ethnomusicologies as much as of musickings.

In Ch.3, while noting changing trends, Nettl cites a 1939 article by George Herzog stressing the diversity of world musicking.

It seems to me that for some twenty years after about 1940, musics—as conceived in Western academia—had to be liberated, as it were, from Western ethnocentrism; ethnomusicology had to make clear their mutual independence, had to urge the acceptance of each on its own terms and not simply as evolutionary way stations to something greater and more perfect. This mission accomplished, ethnomusicology could return to exploring the world’s musics as part of a single whole.

He goes on to discuss different kinds of universals; and under origins, besides worship and individual or group bonding, he notes competition and conflict. Music separates and defines us just as much as it brings us together—varying constantly and delineating boundaries not only of ethnicity but over time, and by class, age, gender, and so on.

In Ch.5 Nettl explores some boundaries of concept, space, and time, borrowing from linguistics and noting idiolects as well as heterogeneity and polymusicality within individual cultures. Musical cultures may not be universal, but it would be unwise to draw clear boundaries. For more, see here.

* * *.

Meanwhile on BBC Radio 3, Tom Service’s long-running series The listening service always broadens the mind beyond the confines of the station’s largely WAM audience (cf. here, and here)—ethnomusicology in plain clothes, perhaps. He debunks cosy Western myths in a series of three programmes to accompany the TV series Civilizations (which wisely limited its brief to material culture)—a welcome antidote to Radio 3’s mystifyingly ethnocentric complement to Neil MacGregor’s fine series Living with the gods.

In the first programme, Searching for paradise, Service notes the basic importance of music to religious observances, with a collage of ritual music from around the world (shamans, qawwali, plainchant, Sardinian liturgy, Bach…). Unpacking the “spiritual” and reflecting on the historical ambivalence of religious leaders towards the embodiment of ritual texts through sound, he makes connections with the latter-day rituals of the concert hall.

Indeed, the search for exotic Oriental mysticism is a major theme in Western studies of the East. In his second programme, Orientalism and the music of elsewhere, Service adduces Mozart, catering to the 19th-century craze for all things Turkish; the taste for the exotic sounds of Indonesia and Japan in 19th-century France (later furthered by Messiaen); and more recently, raga, the music of Africa (Reich, Ligeti), film music, and the whole “world music” fad with its gleeful taste for “fusion” (for a parody of which, scroll down here).

But, he suggests, for some composers such sounds were more than a “titillating and imperialist added extra”: they also transformed our ways of experiencing sound, suggesting other modes beyond the discursive, nay “shouty”, 19th-century ethos. Here we might also add Mahler’s Abschied. And so for visual culture too.

Along with my early fascination with Eastern mysticism (see series beginning here), I too was seduced by all this, and remain so—even as I found through fieldwork (as one does) that musicking in local Chinese societies was anything but an exotic activity.

Meanwhile in the notionally Mystic East, led by Japan, Western culture became suddenly desirable, with profound and lasting consequences—not least in China, where traditional culture came to be considered “unscientific”. There’s a thoughtful cameo from Unsuk Chin (who adorns the splendid T-shirt of female composers!), with her piece for the sheng mouth-organ. But the “two-way conversation” surely remains unequal.

Service suggests we listen to music in its own terms (that is, in the terms of its own culture), rather than as sonic propaganda. I like his bald question “Is our music better than theirs?”, evoking Judith Becker’s influential 1986 article “Is Western Art Music superior?“, which debunks some major Western preconceptions.

In his last programme, Is music a universal language?, Service opens with a discussion of the “universality” of Fidelio, observing, “You need to be conversant with the patterns of tension and release in the specific confines of the Western tonal harmonic system”—not to mention knowing what opera means, and what it meant in Vienna at the start of the 19th century, and so on. He then segues adroitly to Chinese opera.

As he notes, identifying “universals” (fast repeated rhythms for dancing, slow repeating lyrical melodies for lullabies, and so on) may be a bland exercise. We can find similar building blocks, such as the (anhemitonic!) pentatonic scale, but the way they are used and experienced will differ widely. It’s nature and nurture again. And then there’s timbre…

* * *.

Such issues, bearing not just on “music” but on human cultures, are among the standard fare of ethnomusicology. While in my studies of Chinese ritual I tend not to scare the sinological horses by focusing too narrowly on music, the discipline is really most stimulating. Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this before: sound is not some optional decoration to rital, it’s the very medium through which it is expressed! Whatever your cultural focus, do follow up The listening service by reading Nettl! And for further canonical works, see here and here.

This season’s Proms

Mahler 10 scream

Notwithstanding my admiration for Christopher Small‘s critique of the curious behaviour that is concert-going, as opposed to more communal kinds of musicking (see e.g. here), I’m enjoying visits to this year’s Proms.

So far, among the feast (nay, “veritable smorgasbord“) of musicking on offer, I’ve basked in Turangalîlaalways an overwhelming experience, as well as the NYO Prom.

The latter included Debussy’s La mer (which I played with the NYO at the Proms under Boulez in 1971!) and the Ravel Piano Concerto for the left hand (for ways of occupying the other hand, see here). Now I’m looking forward to Les enfants et les sortilèges with S-S-Simon.

Meanwhile it was wonderful to hear the Philharmonia with the great maestro Salonen (the drôle story of whose interview encapsulates Some People’s attitude to WAM!). Effectively, from the spartan pointillism of Webern he segued directly into the desolate viola line the opens the first movement of Mahler 10, before its devastating prophetic catclysm (see my fantasy timeline here; lots more under Mahler tag). Salonen conducted this first half of the concert without a baton, recalling Boulez with his expressive hand gestures and the insights of a composer. I can’t wait to hear him conduct the complete symphony live.

For Salonen’s Mahler 9, see here.

 

In memory of Natasha

Natasha 2

This week is the fourth anniversary of the loss of my friend Natasha at the age of 34—younger than Mozart, and just less than two years after Amy Winehouse’s death.

Unable to do anything at all for months after, I thought I’d better not cancel my planned stay with Li Manshan in September, and indeed he and the other Daoists were understanding, easing me back to life. The Li family had themselves suffered a family tragedy at just the same time. The funeral rituals they perform are always moving, but now, as the sounds of shengguan blending with the vocal liturgy soared above the kowtowing kin, I felt their grief more personally.

Natasha left barely a trace on the world apart from her wonderful kids. I dearly want to write a book on her, but since I now find I know nothing about her, this tribute will have to suffice.

Natasha smile

“Troubled genius” doesn’t do Natasha justice. She deeply touched all who met her; irresistible, she could be impossible. She was the incarnation of Elena Ferrante’s Lila.

Her wild and prodigious early life was spent in Ternopil in west Ukraine. She made her home in London aged 18. Painter and composer, with her icons and Tarot, electronica, Bach, and Arvo Pärt, earth mother and sophisticated cook, femme fatale with her look of heroin chic, chunky jewelry and slinky outfits, finally holding down a mundane job for the sake of surviving as a single mum after teaching and playing in a rock band, childlike and severe, intoxicating and intoxicated, insatiable and hallucinatory, her thirst for knowledge reflected in her multi-coloured notebooks full of sketches and musings, she was on another planet. Hearing TurangalîlaragaMozart, or Naturträne through her ears, deep in her soul, was overwhelmingly intense.

Natasha painting

Natasha’s paintings were both radiant and troubled—her later works were yet darker. Klimt and Schiele would have lapped her up (and she them). It wasn’t easy for her inhabiting a world of Parajanov:

We were supposed to be going to Mahler 5 at the Proms when she had her first heart attack. This is a perfect version of her song, with Magdalena Kožená and Claudio Abbado:


Thriving on impermanence, that I get. But Natasha, you have to keep living…

 

More Messiaen

Yay! Messiaen was BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the week!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p058n84d

With its biographical vignettes, the series is always a good way to explore pieces that may have escaped us. I tend to immerse myself in the works for orchestra, piano, and organ, but how wonderful is his vocal writing—like Harawi, Cinq rechants, or indeed the ravishing Poèmes pour Mi (a fine complement to Berlioz’s Nuits d’été and Ravel’s Shéhérazade). Good to hear Messiaen’s last work too, Concert à quatre.

His Catholic faith was, um, catholic—he made a natural mentor for the budding world music movement. Apart from his beloved birdsong, both his music and teaching were permeated with genres like raga, gamelan, and gagaku. If only I could have introduced him to the Li family Daoist band in Paris!

For yet more Messiaen, see here.