Sunday, May 24, 2020

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.

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