Sunday, May 31, 2020

Messiaen disc 13

Le Livre du Saint Sacrement parts 7-18

I connect these blog posts to Facebook, which is how most people see them. It's the most I've written in years, and I've never attempted to write a book. I never thought I'd be able to tackle a topic that wasn't already covered in existing books.

When I sit down and write these blog posts, I know that to some extent I'm prattling on about a composer I happen to like, working through a large collection of his works. One reason I'm doing it is to be certain that I actually listen to the entire collection. It would have been easier to skip straight to the pieces that I know I like, or hadn't heard before.

It's also a summer project.

I had my summer all planned. I usually teach pre-college at Carnegie Mellon every summer. I forget exactly how many now, 12 of 13 years? 13 of 14?

While my summer schedule is decidedly not intense, I thought I would take this year off anyway. However, I'd try to keep a disciplined schedule: walk to school weekdays, put in a few hours composing and arranging in my office (I have an office for the first time as of January), walk home. I'd be sure to get a little physical exercise every day (goodness knows I need it), and try to maintain a regular creative work schedule. I'd been very irregular with the latter in recent years.

Then you-know-what happened.

I don't want this blogging to be just busy work for myself, a diversion, but part of an attempt to keep at various projects on a regular schedule. I'm not quite half way through listening to the box set, so there's going to be a good deal more writing.

I think Messiaen is an excellent composer to experience in this time. I'm not alarmist when it comes to the pandemic, but I am careful. Nonetheless, I do find myself unsettled or even frightened about what's happening from time to time. And that was before George Floyd was brutally and callously killed by a police officer in full view of camera phones. And the aftermath of that video being released publicly. The world appears to be in a very bad place right now.

I guess I've written this before, but it deserves repeating. I love Messiaen's embracement of beauty. I'm certain many people wouldn't consider his music to be beautiful, but I do. I don't share his Catholic mysticism, but I do believe in his attempt at creating transcendental beauty. At least, that is how I interpret his work as a whole.

I don't mean to block out the chaos and ugliness in the world, I just think we all could use more of that transcendental beauty. Spending an hour a day listening to any great composer? It seems like a positive thing to do.

I haven't written a word about this disc so far. I don't think there's much to add from yesterday's post. I'll point out that the tenth movement, "The Resurrection of Christ", bares more than a passing resemblance to the the early, classic Apparition de l'Église Éternelle. It's looser and more cluster-y, but unquestionably similar.

While listening to this set, I've generally avoided referring to the liner notes, or looking up the titles of the various movements of multi-sectional compositions. Maybe those things would offer some insight as to the thinking behind each movement. I wanted to listen to each work just as pieces of music, not necessarily expressions of Catholic faith.

The next two discs cover his, I guess, oratorio: Le Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ. It's the first of his large ensemble works presented in this set.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Messiaen disc 12

Livre d'orgue (1950); Le Livre du Saint Sacrement parts 1-6 (1984)

I've been reflecting on my comments on Messiaen's music thus far, and in particular the organ works. I think I haven't necessarily taken the right attitude with some of it. If the organ works are at times works of meditation, particularly of religious contemplation, then I don't think I approached some of the music properly.

Messiaen can be super-dramatic, even thrilling. But it's not everything he does. Sit back, allow things to happen, it doesn't need to be exciting.

I'm not trying to make myself like all of his works. I do find him to be among the most consistent of composers. I'm saying that if I expect the dramatic Messiaen and come across the contemplative Messiaen, perhaps I'm going in with the wrong expectations.

Livre d'Orgue, in seven movements, falls somewhere in between. The chromaticism of the quieter, more contemplative movements (i.e #2) gives the work an eerie sound. The first movement is a monophonic melody, no doubt one of his modes of values and intensities. I wouldn't mind being in the room with the instrument when the organist hits those immense pedal tones.

The birdsongs are back, specifically in the fourth movement.

Then there are some of massive cluster-ish chords, such as the opening and closing of movement 3, and there's that drama again.

As a whole it's a curious piece. The second through sixth movements all have some stated Catholic subtext, but the first and final movements are more formalist in nature. It seems gone are the times he wants to let the clouds open up with a huge major chord any longer (at least at this particular time in his career).

It would probably be more fair for me to listen to all of Le Livre du Saint Sacrement in one sitting, but I'm going to have to leave most of the movements for tomorrow, on the following disc. All combined, it's about 101 minutes.

It's a late work, and immediately feels like a mature, confident composition. As it should, by this time in his life. Generally gone, as far as I can hear, are the more severe formalist/modalist/serialist leanings mentioned earlier. Even if it's all clearly Messiaen, it doesn't sound much like his early music. It's not all big and dramatic, but it is generally more engaging than some of the organ music I previously listened to.

But again, I might need to check that opinion at a future date, re-evaluate some of the earlier works.

If I think of anything more to write about this work, I'll do that tomorrow. Or, more likely, go on other tangents.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Another day off

None of this really matters long term. My Messiaen listening project is nothing more than a personal project. 32 discs-32 days. I've listened to two discs in a day previously. I'm taking another day off. It's partly because I was productive today composing, so that takes precedence for sure.

Messiaen composed Méditations sur le Mystère de la Saint Trinité. If I recall, I wasn't sold on it entirely, but I might have to revisit the work. Charles Mingus composed Meditations on Integration. It might not go anywhere, but I've started to compose Meditations on Quarantine. I don't know if I'll succeed, but I have a minimum of one new separate piece out of the effort.

Today would have been Iannis Xenakis' birthday. Xenakis is unquestionably one of my favorite composers. I don't try in any way to emulate him, because, how in the world could I? Xenakis is on of Messiaen's most celebrated students, as well as Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono.

I've told this story many times, but I'll repeat it. Xenakis was the first guest artist at CMU was I was a freshman. I didn't know how significant that was at the time. He was brought in for a series of...believe it or not...computers and music! Yes, even then, that wasn't completely vanguard.

The series was sponsored by by both the computer science and music departments. He lectured to both departments. I didn't see it all, but out of curiosity I walked into his science department lecture. There was a lecture, sound, and a slide show involved.

I remember most specifically that he played Metastasis. It was played with a slide show demonstrating the graphs he used to determine the piece. It was also played at a jarringly loud volume. I wasn't sure that I was sold on this guy, but I was left with an impression. It wasn't long after that I bought a Xenakis LP at the Record Graveyard down the street. I still have it.

A decade and a half later, Xenakis was a guest again at CMU. I was just a fan and wasn't on faculty at the time. The CMU Philharmonic played Metastasis. It was surprisingly quiet.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Messiaen disc 11

Prélude (1930); Verset pour la Fête de la Dédicace (1960); Monodie (1963); L'Ascension (1934); Messe de le Pentecôte (1949)

Mixed selection of more solo organ music from various times in Messiaen's career. Just as all the solo piano music was recorded by Roger Muraro for DG, so to Olivier Lautry recorded all the organ works.

I've generally paid less attention to the organ works because, as I've written previously, I sometimes don't find them to be some of the composer's most interesting work. That said, the third movement of L'Ascension was one of the first things by Messiaen that grabbed me. It was on an LP on Candide Records.

An aside: I'm not a completist, but if an album is on Candide, I will at least look it over. They released some standard classical fare (Mozart, Schubert), but also released some pretty significant modern era and avant-garde works. Messiaen, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Berio, Henze, Lutoslawski; decidedly not modern but unusual would be an album of Gesualdo; even an interesting collection of musique concréte works compiled by Ilhan Mimaroglu.

Back to this CD. I'm feeling the works on this a little more than some of the previous discs, though I still wouldn't rank most of it with the better piano works. I'm willing to admit that I probably just enjoy listening to the piano more.

Lautry plays wonderfully, as you might expect charged with recording the complete Messiaen organ repertoire for Deutsche Grammophon. I was wondering as I listened to this, if I would be able to start to hear his "hand" on these performances, distinctively from other interpreters? I suspect not as easily as I might hearing different pianists performing. Again, that may be on me.

I'm enjoying the early works on this particular disc. As I've also noted before, the music doesn't always have to be about drama, but they are the more dramatic pieces. I like that he's a pretty chromatic composer already, but will resolve to a major chord for effect. There's also some beautifully lyric sections to these work, such as the first and fourt movements of L'Ascension. Monodie, on the other hand, is decidedly not dramatic. It sounds a bit like an exercise to me.

Birdsong rears its head, so to speak, in Verset. I'm surprised there hasn't been more birdsong embedded in these organ works, but I still have several discs to do. I'll confess that this has been the first time since I started listening to these discs that I referred to the liner notes. I should probably be reading more.

The Messe...I do like the big, tone-clustery ending, but it's a pretty low-key work in general and I wonder again about the context of seeing this piece performed.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

A day off

After listening to at least one CD a day of Messiaen for over a week, I'm taking a day off. L'Ascension is on the next disc, so I'm looking forward to that. I've just bought a bass clarinet, the first good one I've owned, and I'm enjoying blowing air through it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Messiaen disc 10

Médiations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité (1969) Olivier Latry, organist

What is it about Messiaen's music that I love? There is drama to be sure, but that's not always a quality that I like. Of Beethoven's music, it's the more understated works that I find most satisfying. I love Morton Feldman's music, which is often determinately anti-dramatic.

I love that Messiaen embraces a sense of beauty, but again, not all music is nor should be about beauty.

I definitely love his sense of harmony, which assumes that combinations of notes matter. That relates to the two previous paragraphs.

I love that he sounds like himself at (nearly) all times, this piece being no exception.

Melody is never out of the picture. Again, not necessarily everything I'm looking for, but I enjoy his sense of it.

I recall that I knew enough about Messiaen in college to talk about him to pianists and organists. They were disinterested in playing his music. Too weird, too abstruse, and inappropriate for the organ/church setting.

Assuming I was an organist of any ability, and that I had the discipline to do so, I'd devote myself to Messiaen's music. Personally, his organ music is generally not my favorite of his works, but what a beautiful thing to get inside of his sound-world.

For a few years, I was hired as a ringer for the CMU Wind Ensemble on baritone saxophone, because they had no sax majors at all. I enjoyed playing the wind ensemble works by Hindemith, Schoenberg, Gershwin. Twice, works by Messiaen for piano and winds (birdsong pieces) were programmed, and neither had saxophones! Come on man, I WANT to play this music!

I'm writing this as Médiations plays. I'm intermittently engaged and bored with it. Why is it that Messiaen's organ music, the instrument he himself was connected to, produced what I find to be some of his least interesting music? Does that say more about me than him?

Monday, May 25, 2020

Messiaen disc 9

Le Banquet céleste (1928), Offrande au Saint-Sacrement (1930), Diptyque (1929), Les Corps glorieux (1939).

More Messiaen organ music.

A tangent, with a point. In 1958, Iannis Xenakis created the piece Concret PH. It's an assemblage of recordings of charcoal burning, processed through filters. Also in 1958, Xenakis designed the Philips Pavilion for the Brussels World's Fair. It's an irregular building, based on hyperbolic paraboloids. There were 400+ speakers scattered through the space. Inside, for every two playings of Edgard Varèse's Poème électronique, there would be one playing of Concret PH. 

Why do I mention this?

I play Concret PH for students, and a point I make is that they nor I will ever experience what it was like to listen to that work in its original presentation. I may enjoy or even love the work now, but it's not the same was walking into a strangely shaped building, a random slide show projected on the walls, with this unidentifiable music playing.

I've written this story because, well, I don't find the much of the music on this disc especially interesting. Oh, it's pretty, eerily creepy sometimes. I don't hate it, it's fine, I don't love it.

But I'm going to give Messiaen something of a pass in that, I'm not experiencing these works in their original presentation. I think this was music meant to be heard, and contemplated on, in a grand Catholic cathedral.

I've written before that I am an irreligious person. As such, I'm not going to contemplate "The Almighty" in a church with this music playing. But I do believe that listening to these works in a grand setting, stained glass shining down, would transform the experience.

These works do have moments I find exciting, such as the grand contrabassoon-like opening to the fourth movement Les Corps ("Combat of Death and Life"), or the clusters of chords in that movement. Wow, okay, bring me to Jesus, Olivier!

Well, not so much. Even my love and respect for Messiaen's music is not going to convert me. But it's one of the greatest arguments in favor of Catholicism I can imagine.

These organ works, generally early in his career, do demonstrate his love of harmonic possibilities, and show a sense of orchestration too (various stop settings are often dramatically different).

There are four CDs worth of organ music to go in this box set. I know particular pieces I will love, but this will seem slower than the solo piano music.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Messiaen disc 8

Organ music: Apparition de l'Église éternelle (1932)/La Nativité du Seigneur (1935)

In the narrative of the 32-CD box set, we've moved from the solo piano music to the organ works.

Messiaen was an organist. Which meant he played some piano, but devoted himself to that church-oriented instrument.

There's a purity to the sound of the organ. The debate over the centuries about Pythagorean tunings vs. equal temperament, had largely to do with the pure sound of the organ in churches. Equal temperament won out, and not necessarily for the worst.

As for the music:

Apparition de l'Énglise éternelle (Vision of the Eternal Church) can I put of the most emotionally stirring pieces that I know.

It's a series of slowly played chords. That's all. Yes, there's a small element of rhythm, but it has to do with lengths of tensions more than a pushing forward of time. But if you speak of the piece being rhythmic? Not really.

The chords, the tensions, the resolutions: it's amazing. Vision of the eternal church. The piece begins very quietly, builds, builds more, feels like the heavens are opened up, then backs away slowly. The church in the past, present, and future. At least, how I interpret the piece.

There's a short film of people listening to this work, without being told in advance what it is. The reactions, as you might expect, are varied. Among the most interesting yet disappointing was John Cameron Mitchell, director of Shortbus and co-creator of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He started taking a knife to the headphones, stabbing one side. I saw a production of Hedwig, and it didn't make me want to stab my ear with a knife, but I found it to be utterly boring.

I love this work. I feel it. I marvel at its tensions and releases. If Messiaen had written nothing else, he would have proven himself a master of harmonic tension and release with this piece alone. I don't care a bout the programmatic subtext.

As for La Nativité du Seigneur, well it has it moments. I think it would be wonderful to see performed, but otherwise it seems very church-y. There are some powerful moments to be sure, but I'm only mid-way through listening to this piece, and I want to move on.

But, I am dedicated to listening to all 32 CDs on this set. They all can't be Turangalîla. And I don't hate the organ works, but I'm just not devoted to them.

Note: the seventh movement of  La Nativité du Seigneur, at times recalls the grandeur of the earlier work, and even presages Turangalîla. Fragments to be sure, but I hear them.

What was happening in organ music in the 1930s? I have to take that into account. I don't think many composers were writing new, and new conception, pieces for the instrument.

The final movement hits deep. I have to wonder about seeing this work performed in its native element. I have a cinematic reference, but I think I'll leave that until my next posting.

Messiaen disc 7

Catalogue d'oiseaux, Books 6-7

So we come to the end of the solo piano portion of the 32-CD Messiaen DG box set. There might be more solo piano music, and if it's available to hear, I'll seek it out once I'm through this brick of CDs.

I know there are at least a few pieces missing from this set. Mostly notably for me is "Oraison", a piece from 1937 for four ondes Martenot, recycled in the Quartet for the End of Time. I guess I'll bring that up when that work comes up later in the collection of discs.

As for the current disc, the final 45 minutes of Catalog of the Birds, I don't know that I can describe the music any more than I already have. I can mention more personal anecdotes and tangents.

A little more about Michael Pestel. Michael made a project of editing recordings of Messiaen's birdsong recreations (specifically from this work) with field recordings of the real thing. He played a few for me. I can see where Messiaen was coming from, but at times it was...highly interpretive. That's fine. How do you represent a flock of flying curlews on the twelve-tone keys of the piano?

Michael sometimes plays the "bird machine". It's a (contra?-)bass recorder, square like an organ pipe, mounted on a stand. He built a curved wing on each side, where he holds various bird calls and whistles.

I can't say for certain whether this is true, but he claimed to have been the second musician to go into the wilds of Australia to listen and play with the lyrebird. The first was Messiaen, he has said. Maybe?

The lyrebird is an amazing creature, to be certain. The cliche would be, it's like a mockingbird on steroids. The male lyrebird collects birdsongs, or for that matter environmental sounds, in a long collection, apparently to attract a mate. Despite being dull grey and brown, it also has impressive mating plumage.


I'm going on faulty memory on some of the following, so if anyone involved can correct me, I'm happy to acknowledge it.

My friend tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE organized a series of mms, or music meetings. Mostly it was a social listening party, at first. As time went on, the meetings would become thematic. He'd collect audio/video (vaudio, in his lexicon) for his endlessly complex (anti-)opera. There were some performances, including one by Gen Ken Montgomery.

One music meeting centered on Messiaen, with a guest speaker who had written a dissertation on Messiaen's music. I am interested, believe me. I don't recall her name, and I'm uncertain that I would share it on this forum even if I did.

She told, early on, of the struggles writing a dissertation on Messiaen in France, that was in any way critical of him. I don't agree with that. Messiaen was hardly a perfect person, but his music still has great power to me. He is more or less deified in France. Her dissertation had to be published off-land. Yvonne Loriod was alive at the time and had great control over her late husband's legacy.

I remember two major points she made. One was, with respect to the birdsong transcriptions, Messiaen would sometimes fudge the results. There are the obvious things: notes played faster than human capability, microtones, extreme pitches ranges.

But then there were decisions. If a bird would make a sound four times, Messiaen might reduce it to three, to represent the trinity.

This wouldn't be so important if Messiaen didn't represent himself as an authority on birdsong. But he did. Why?

That would be the second point. Messiaen at one time in the post-war era was seen as being old-fashioned. His students (Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono, Xenakis) had overtaken him as the vanguard. And, he was Catholic. So, Olivier created a story (myth?) around himself as the birdsong authority. He was giving you what was happening in the real world! And otherwise, his music became more strident. He wanted to prove he could keep up with the kids. He wrote some of the all-birdsong pieces around this time. I said this was "careerist".

I understand the need to stay current. And the thing is, I like those works. Wind ensemble with piano pushing out birdsongs.

But you know what? I still love the music. Birdsong-centric or not. And that's where I say, I want to see the hand of the composer. I don't need him to recreate nature so much as I want him to transform it.


I have delighted in a robin's nest, set in the bush next my front door. I've also enjoyed the app downloaded to my phone, the records and identifies birdsongs and calls. Turns out there's a northern flicker that calls out near my house every morning and evening. I've never seen it at my feeder, but that was mildly exciting.

The solo organ music comes next. I know of a few delights there, but I'm not as excited otherwise.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Messiaen disc 6

Catalogue d'oiseaux, books 4-5

Back again. The beginning of book 4, "The Reed Warbler", moves with great rapidity.

I'm uncertain I have anything to say about these pieces apart from what I wrote about the previous disc, so I'll share related stories.

I haven't worked with Michael Pestel for a few years. I'm sure we will again. We had a group together, Syrinx Ensemble, that was dedicated to improvising in spaces with birds. Thankfully, Pittsburgh has one of the best (and only?) aviaries in the US, the (now-called) National Aviary.

Aside: I didn't grow up in Pittsburgh, but my grandparents lived in the North Hills. I remember visiting the aviary several times in my youth, it was one of my favorite places my grandfather would take us to visit.

One way Michael convinced Anthony Braxton to play Pittsburgh was to give him the opportunity to engage in some interspecies communication with the birds in the aviary. We all did two performances together, in addition to other Syrinx performances there. Michael, tENTATIVELY a cONVENIENCE and I, with a butoh dancer, also did a performance at the aviary that was beautiful as I recall.

I can tell you from the aviary performances, flamingoes (possibly dominant males?) respond to the lowest frequencies of the contrabass clarinet. Scrub jays are responsive in general, I recall to the clarinet. The aviary had a grey trumpeter that was highly acclimated to humans, known to pick food from kids' hands. He was unafraid to come over and mix it up with us.

Some years later, he and I did a performance at the Miller Gallery at CMU. He cut up pieces of Catalogue d'oiseaux, tossed them on the floor. Flute students acted like pigeons, fluttering about, reading pieces of the score. Then he and I swept them off the stage, and swept the score fragments away, using contrabass clarinets he had made out of brooms. It was so enjoyable, and the students really got into the spirit of the work.

Syrinx Ensemble did two gigs at the Central Park Zoo, that included playing in the tropical house and duck pond. Included on some of those gigs were flutist Robert Dick, and vocalist Caterina De Re. I've admired Robert for many years, his books on the flute are essential for any flutist/reed player/composer interested in the subject. He asked me to hold his flute at one point, so he could check his phone or something, and I said, "Uhhhh um okay!" It had at least ten extra keys or extensions of keys.

I'm attaching two photos below. The first is of Syrinx in the tropical room at the CPZ: Michael, me, and Robert left to right. The second is of me with Caterina. I'm not proud. I couldn't possibly look nerdier next to that presence next to me with the Thai finger add-ons.

I'll finish with Catalogue d'oiseaux tomorrow.

Messiaen disc 5

Catalogue d'oiseaux (1956-58) Books 1-3

Unlike listening to the entirety of Vingt Regards yesterday (just under two hours), I doubt I'm going to listen to this entire work today.

What a strangely obsessive work. I think it's reasonable to question why it needed to be as long as it is, clocking in at over about two and a half hours. That said, there is a wealth of ideas throughout the piece.

Each movement, unless I haven't listened to an exception, takes on a similar form: the composer introduces thematic material, and switches back and forth between his birdsong transcriptions and "original" material. Occasionally it's difficult to tell which is which, though I've seen the score previously and know that the name of each bird is written into the score.

It seems so odd that he most often used the piano, the most un-bird-like of instruments, to express the voices of birds. The question of just how accurately he represents birdsongs on the piano, or in general, is a question for debate. A former academic coworker was an expert on Messiaen. When the university wind ensemble played one of the birdsong works, he introduced the work with a short talk about this very subject.

Messiaen was often photographed in a meadow or field, staff paper in hand, transcribing birdsongs. This academic (whose name I won't provide, for other reasons) had studied some of Messiaen's original transcriptions and found names written in English. Messiaen only spoke French, refused to learn another language. What this academic person discovered was that the names were copied from a particular LP of field recordings of birds. He also said, Messiaen gets it right more often than not, that his transcriptions are convincing.

I will return to this topic in a future posting.

Much as the writing is very beautiful in this work, I'd say I generally prefer the Vingt Regards. It's broader and more varied in compositional scope. With so many birdsongs flying by, so to speak, I have to admit recalling only a few passages from previously listening to this piece. The second movement, "Loriot d'Europe", I definitely recalled. It begins with a lovely series of soft chords, interrupted by a birdsong (I assume the oriole the movement is named for) that I think recognize from here and other works. It's probably no coincidence that the loriot/oriole, and his wife's name of Loriod, would have meant a great deal to the composer.

With two more discs' worth of this piece, there's more to write in future postings.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Messiaen disc 4

Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus (second half, parts 11-20)

It is all one piece, so I might as well knock this off in a day. That makes it sound like drudgery, I do genuinely love the music and am enjoying digging into the Messiaen library more deeply than ever.

With the addition of the Olivier Messiaen: Complete Edition to my personal library, I came to realize that I have four recordings of this composition. I've never A-B'ed any two or more of them. The one difference I can tell is the tempo of the opening movement.

Not that it matters, but I have it on vinyl played by Michel Béroff; I bought that at a record sale held by WQED; pay $5 and take away as much as you want. I took about forty records/sets, and I don't think I was being greedy. There's a card on the front to log in all the plays it received over the air. One movement was played one time.

I also have the version released on CD on Melodiya (!), and a more recent performance by Pierre-Laurent Aimard. He's supposed to be the authority on this work, and I've heard of him taking the stage and playing it by memory.

A casual search online will show that this piece has been recorded many times. If I actually was to seek out another, it would probably be that of Yvonne Loriod, the composer's wife. She was also known to take the stage playing her husband's works by memory. This piece is dedicated to her.

Roger Muraro has been the pianist on all of the piano music so far on this box set. I don't know how much better Airmard is, I'd have to study both recordings with the score to have any idea.

And I have a copy of the score! It was sold off by the University of Chicago library, from the estate of Easley Blackwood. My friend Rob bought it for me. I thought, well, it's at the library, do I really need a copy? Now with all the libraries closed,  I'm thrilled to have that score and others. It's falling apart but complete. There are fingerings pencilled into one movement, so he must have played and taught some of this piece in his courses.

Blackwood was a respectable academic composer himself. I've heard pieces I liked, some that didn't move me. Rob sent me other scores as well, including a copy of Iannis Xenakis' Achorripsis. Inside the cover, written in Easley's hand, it reads: "Incredible that this 'composer' was ever taken serious." !!! Love it. Xenakis was one of Messiaen's students, though it boiled down to the teacher saying, "You need to use your mathematics for your music." (Not verbatim.) I'll admit that I don't find Achorripsis to be one of Xenakis' more exciting works, though I consider him to be another of my favorite composers.

I'm writing this text as the recording plays, and the music has come to a slower, more contemplative section. "Kiss of the infant Jesus." It's beautiful. (Just so happens, this was the movement that received a single play in WQED on vinyl.) And while I hate to point out a tiny portion of the work, the last 45 seconds of the previous movement (#14) is my favorite passage in the entire work.

I'd really like to see this performed some time, but I guess I have plenty of recordings until then.

I see that the next three discs are devoted to Catalog of the Birds, and then on to the organ works.

Messiaen disc 3

Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus (1944), first half

One of the landmark pieces. Approximately two hours of solo piano music, much of it quite difficult.

I had been spending some time listening to this piece prior to buying the box set, so much of the music has remained fresh in my mind. While not an early-stage work, the composer was about 36 when this was composed. It's clear he had a fully-formed vision of the sound of his music by this time. Everything is here, except for his orchestration ability in larger ensemble works: birdsong, his use of modes and harmonies, identifiable thematic material vs. discontinuity, his use of regular vs. irregular rhythms. Oh, and his Catholicism. Twenty views/regards/contemplations on the infant Jesus.

What do I make of Messiaen's Catholicism, being irreligious myself? One thing I've said is, if more church music sounded like Messiaen, I might actually attend once in a while.

If he had simple titled this Twenty Studies and numbered each movement, I'd find the work no less engaging. But, especially listening to this first half again, what really comes through is Messiaen as a post-Romantic composer at heart. This is music you're intended to feel, to respond emotionally, and the Catholic subtext to each movement does give the composition a programmatic quality. It's not to the extent of Berlioz representing in sound the walk to the gallows in Symphonie Fantastique. Certainly though, titling the first movement "Contemplation of the Father",which is stately, beautiful, even dare I say "heavenly", it's clear the Catholic inspirations are in some way important to the composition.

All of which is to say, his Catholicism doesn't really mean much to me personally, but it means something to him. It helps drive his work, and I love the work. I even think, at a time when his fellow composers and students are often secular humanists and socialists, it's interesting that he stayed so steadfastly with his faith.

At least, I think he did. I can't say what he truly felt. But I'll accept that he maintained his faith during his lifetime.

It's difficult to summarize the music (as it often is with much music). Even the first hour covers a lot of ground, the music often being mercurial and changing direction swiftly. Three (or four?) particular themes appear multiple times through the work, giving the composition overall a strong sense of unity even when it moves swiftly through ideas.

As I listen to the piece though, I still wonder what he was thinking at times. I'm not complaining nor criticizing. The fourth movement, "Contemplation of the Virgin", starts with one of the most lyrical passages in the entire work, but quickly jumps to a series of broader and more active passages. How does that relate to the topic, I wonder?

How do we even get inside the mind of a composer, or other creative person? There are those works, more "classical" in nature, which can be studied and analyzed fairly effectively. It doesn't necessarily explain the inspiration, but you can trace the composer's methods. And while Messiaen is a methodical composer (having written volumes of books on the subject), he's intuitive and free-flowing enough that I can't always predict what he will, or what he was thinking.

I might listen to the second half later today, or maybe save it for tomorrow.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Messiaen disc 2

Various piano works: Petites Esquisses d'oiseaux (1985), Quatre Etudes de rythme (1950), Cantéyodjayâ (1949), Rondeau (1943), Fantasie burlesque (1932), Prélude pour piano (1964), Pièce pour le tombeau de Paul Dukas (1935)

This album of shorter solo piano pieces spans most of Messiaen's career, making it an informative collection. This and I think everything else in the box set are repackaged separate releases, if my words move you to the point of seeking out the original issues. (Or hell, blow the money on the box set.)

From the opening note of Petites, you know you're listening to Messiaen. It's not the obsessive birdsong transcriptions, at least not for the first several notes. It's his choices of harmony that stand out here. This set of six short studies that are a bit like highly condensed versions of Catalog of the Birds, or the Garden Warbler piece I wrote about yesterday. He would have been in his 70s when he wrote these sketches, as he put it. If he's not going to sound like Messiaen at this point, who is he going to sound like?

A year or two back I checked out of the library a CD of new works by Steve Reich. I like Steve's music, and think Music for 18 Musicians is a critical work of the post-war (or post-post war?) composition. I listened to the recent works, and, well, it sounded like Steve Reich. It wasn't anything I hadn't heard from him before, but I thought, Steve Reich has earned the right to sound like Steve Reich. I think I like these sketches more than the recent Reich, but that's just my orientation in general I'd say.

The best known of the works on this CD, or at the least the most studied, would have to be the Quatre Etudes. Particularly the second movement, in English "Mode of values and intensities", was something of a model for post-war serialist composers. As one might expect, the four works don't sound so uniquely Messiaen-like, though he still manages to to maintain some of that lyricism I associate with his music. It doesn't sound as thorny or impenetrable as the serialized piano music of Stockhausen or Boulez.

I'm going to continue to write my thoughts on these pieces, but it's really all about the experience, is it not? I mean, that's self-evident. So when I write that Cantéyodjayâ, a work I've heard before, sounds more uniquely/indigenously Messiaen, what does that even mean? Certainly there's his use of harmony; some chords, progressions of chords, just sound like him. Even when he's not specifically composing one of the bird pieces, birdsong-like passages seem to happen anyway (even in the Quatre Etudes). All of these works sound more (generally) challenging and virtuosic than the earlier 8 Préludes I wrote about yesterday. He was not afraid to write hard music! But, importantly, not impossibly difficult music. Being an organist himself, and married to a virtuoso pianist, I sure he was well aware of the technical range and limitations of the instrument.

The remaining works on his collection, although spanning several decades, all some extent find Messiaen at his most "classical", if that even means anything. That's going to happen if you compose a rondo, for example. The two works from the 1930s definitely demonstrate that he's establishing himself as having a unique compositional voice at a fairly young age. He's not yet out of his 20s, and there are passages in both pieces that sound like they could have fit inside music later works.

Birdsong has already come up several times in these first two discs, but something that hasn't is his Catholicism. That changes tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Messiaen disc 1

I've already written, here and on Facebook, about Messiaen recently. I've loved his music for years, and have been listening to a good deal recently.

So, I decided to spring for the 32-CD "Complete Edition" on Deutsche Grammophon. That title is deceptive, as there's a fair amount of his compositions not represented in this collection. It's everything that had been previously released on DG. I have a number of those, but at a bargain price and a lot of music I haven't heard before, I thought it was worth it.

So I'll be spending an hour each day going through the collection, and writing a few thoughts as part of a summer break/quarantine project.

Disc 1: 8 Préludes/La Fauvette Des Jardins

The collection starts with an hour of solo piano music, performed by Roger Muraro. I don't really know anything about Roger. He can occasionally be heard doing a little of what Glenn Gould is famous for doing: humming/singing the line as he plays. Roger doesn't do it nearly as much as Glenn does, and I find it makes the listening experience more interesting. It's good to know he really feels  the music, and doesn't just play the notes.

I don't think I've heard the Préludes before, or at least hadn't paid close attention to it. It's an early work, completed in 1929, when the composer was about 20-21 years of age. Not surprisingly, the music doesn't sound uniquely Messiaen-ic. Occasionally there's a chord, or a chord sequence, or voicing that pops up where I think, oh yes, that's Olivier.

That's not to say it's a tentative or immature work, it sounds like French post-Romantic/Impressionist piano music. The work probably displays the influence of Paul Dukas, one of Messiaen's teachers. Most of the movements aren't especially virtuosic in nature, focusing more on tonal color. That attention to harmony coloration would be a consistent element of his music for his entire career.

La Fauvette Des Jardins (Garden Warbler) dates to 1970, and feels very much like a follow-up piece to his massive Catalogue of the Birds of 1958. I had to look through the listing of movements for Catalog, to be certain it wasn't a displaced movement from that larger work.

Compositionally it unquestionably resembles the various movements of Catalog: thematic statements, perhaps motifs, are interspersed with birdsongs. Although the work is presented as a single track, it sounds as though it has several movements to it.

The topic of birdsongs in Messiaen's music, and in particular using the piano to perform them, is something I'll have to address in a future posting.

It's an interesting companion to the 8 Préludes: one of the composer's earliest published works that clocks in at approximately half an hour in total, with a later period work that is about the same length of time. The first prelude is titled The Dove, but otherwise there doesn't seem to be any bird references in the work. In the later piece, he's fully immersed and invested in his birdsong transcriptions. It's probably a far more difficult piece to play than the earlier work. The early piece is a much more clearly tonal sound to it, although it doesn't sound tied to strongly to the idea of tonal harmony. The later piece? It's far, far more chromatic in nature, particularly the birdsong sections. But, even at this later time, Messiaen will still throw in a major chord or open fifth here and there.

That's one of the things I love about Messiaen's compositions. The world of his music can include serial systems and major chords. He can follow a chord with ten notes in it, with a major or minor chord, then an open fifth or octave, and it's all of one piece. (I'm thinking of Apparition de l'Énglise éternelle in particular, which turns up on disc 6 of this collection.)

Disc 2 will be more solo piano music, also played by Roger Muraro.

Addendum: I wondered...I thought I heard of couple of coughs during the last piece on this disc. There's applause at the end. This was a live performance! Damn. Wish I could have been there.