Friday, June 26, 2020

Messiaen disc 32

Visions de l'Amen (1943); Chants de Terre at de Ciel (1938)

Final disc. Here we are.

I've affirmed my preference for Messiaen's music in the 1940s, so I was unquestionably looking forward to Visions de l'Amen. I know I've listened to this work before, but not after having immersed myself in the composer's works previously.

It's scored for two pianos. Considering what he expects a single pianist to do in pieces such was Vingt Regards, it would be reasonable to question the need for two. It's a very busy work at times. Unlike any other recording in the set so far, I definitely detected an edit in the recording. There's no shame in that, I'm just a little surprised it was as obvious as it was.

I looked at the credits, and I see this recording is played by the composer and his wife. I'm assuming if there's a more difficult part, it's Yvonne playing it.

Listening to this after 31 other CDs of Messiaen's music, it clearly sounds like it's a 1940s work. Vingt Regards comes to mind, especially on the first movement here. The first movement in each sets up in a similar way, and that same material pops up again in subsequent movements. This is a few years before Messiaen would compose what is considered to be the first completely serialized work, abstracting all materials from the very idea of themes, thematic development and repetition, variations, and harmonic progressions.

Again, I'll emphasize, those things are necessarily important. I love much of Xenakis' orchestral music, but you're not going to hear much in the way of thematic material in those. He's in a different category altogether though, in many ways.

Messiaen doesn't do sound-mass the way Xenakis does. And I don't expect him too. Olivier tried his hand at musique-concréte, but ultimately rejected the results. (I still want to hear it!) He'd never create anything like Stockhausen's Hymnen. I love them all for who they are.

It's strictly alliterative, but my opinion is that every jazz musician needs to study the 4Ms: Monk, Miles, Mingus, and Messiaen. The first three make up several of the very pillars of jazz innovation, along with many other names: Armstrong, Ellington, Ornette, Sun Ra, Braxton, Ayler, I could go on. But Messiaen?

Definitely. I know he's so very European. But he has ideas about rhythms, scales, modes, forms, worth considering. I also consider the writings and/or interviews of Cage and Stockhausen to be essential, even if you disagree with every word. Consider the alternatives.

While we're at it, there's a book I recommend everyone read: Improvisation; Its nature and practice in music. It's written/compiled by Derek Bailey. He interviewed improvisors in various idioms, including flamenco guitar, jazz, rock, Baroque organ. He even interviewed Earle Brown, a so-called classical/avant-garde composer who allowed for improvisation, and Gavin Bryars, an improvisor who turned to through-composing.

It's been a while for me, I should return to it.

I'll return to this blog, maybe I'll even write about more box sets. I have the 10-CD (pre-Rahsaan) Roland Kirk box, for example, or Xenakis, or several Miles box sets, or maybe not.

Chants de Terre at de Ciel. I haven't heard this before. I mark off 1940 as the "golden period" of his work, but this is pretty great, I have to admit. It dodges around tonality/atonality, periodicity/irregularity.

I know I love the 1940s works. If I revisit anything, it's his works from the 1930s I should reconsider. I think listening to them in chronological order would definitely color my opinion. The 1940s didn't just happen for him, there was a development along the way.

I'm going to be spending more time with the vinyl I've recently bought, I know that much. Duquesne University sold its vinyl collection to Jerry's Records. It's a lot of standard classical recordings, but I have been buying up the avant-garde vinyl when possible. Stockhausen, Zimmermann, Kagel, Eaton, Nancarrow, etc.

Disc's over. I'm done. Thanks, OM.

I read that Messiaen liked brightly-colored shirts. I'm on board, man.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Messiaen disc 31

Thème et variations (1932); L'Ascension (1935); Poèmes pour Mi (1937); Un Vitrail et des oiseaux (1988); Vocalise-Etude (1935)

I took a few days off from Messiaen listening. I love much of the music but I needed to break from it a bit. There's only a single disc after this one, so I should have this completed tomorrow.

I was thinking of Gunther Schuller today. Gunther was not only a pretty fine composer in his own right, but a true scholar as well. I'm sure it was more than just a summer project like this venture is, but he'd listen to the complete recordings of particular jazz artists. As in, everything, including outtakes. That must have gotten tedious at times. His observation was that even among the very greats, you'd be hard pressed to find many who don't repeat ideas, rely on some stock riffs now and then. He said a notable exception was Charlie Parker. He could blow on the same tune three times and it could sound radically different each time.

I have a partial response to that, because I know what he says can be true. When Thoth Trio recorded our second album, we were comparing the two takes of "Nocturnal" we played. The version on the CD is a composite of the two; it's mostly take one with the second spliced onto the end, because the end was more accurate on the second take. Paul Thompson observed that he will use different takes to try to work out ideas, develop improvisations. He said my solos on each take sounded very different.

I don't write that because I'm comparing myself favorably with Bird. I'm at least as prone to riffage and licks as any other saxophonist. But it says something about how we each approach these things. I see every performance, including recordings and rehearsals, as an opportunity to attempt to explore. Paul is very methodical, and his logic of trying to develop ideas take-to-take is a sound one. (That said, he still preferred his first solo over the second.) So I question, when Mr. Schuller was listening to all of those alternate takes, if that was an attitude that some of those players had. If the ultimate result was to produce the best possible side or take, then maybe you need to work a few things out along the way.


This CD is also a grab-bag, including several alternate versions.

The early Theme and Variations for violin and piano is a brisk work, rather pretty, some of those Messiaen harmonies, there it is.

The Ascension. It was originally for organ. As I recall, three of the four original movements were orchestrated,  with a new piece replacing one movement. In an orchestral setting, it sounds more Debussy-like than almost anything else on this collection. He's an excellent orchestrator, even when not doing his more idiomatic writing for gongs, parallel-voiced woodwinds, ondes Martenot.

Poèmes pour Mi. I wasn't too enthusiastic about this when I listened to the orchestrated version. Here's the original setting for voice and piano.

I won't say I'm still especially excited by this work, but I think I feel more drawn to the sparer voice-with-piano setting. Bigger is not always better. I'd almost always rather listen to a jazz quartet than a big band.

Un Vitrail et des oiseaux (A Stained-Glass Window and Birds) is the oddball work here, a late piece packed onto a collection with pieces written more than fifty years earlier. It's more piano with (small) orchestra, no doubt written for his wife Yvonne. I always like these pieces, but there are similar works scattered through this collection.

Vocalise-Etude. Another very French-sounding piece, just a touch of that biting early 20th century harmony, but very clearly in the tradition of Debussy or Dukas. It is, I admit, a very pretty piece.

One disc to go. One long work from the 1940s on it, so I look forward to that one. 

I'm attaching a picture of a grey catbird I scooped off of Wikipedia. I'm not a serious birder but I like to keep track of what's in my yard (and I try not to bore my friends with it). I identified one of these in my front yard for the first time yesterday. Its call does sound eerily like a young kitten mewling. I hope it returns.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Messiaen disc 30

Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine (1944); Couleurs de la Cité Céleste (1963); Hymne (1932); Fantasie pour violin et piano (1933)

Two discs to go after this. These and the previous few of been mixed bags of content, though there's great content contained therein.

If I've learned anything from this listening exercise, it's that I definitely favor Messiaen's music of the 1940s above all else. Trois petites liturgies finds him in his prime. Yes, it's Messiaen at his churchiest, but as I've written before: if more church music sounded like this, I might actually attend once in a while.

It's a relatively modest work compared to the size and length of Turangalîla, or the length of Vingt Regards or even Harawi, the composer packs a lot into its 34-minute length. It is scored for, in the composer's listed order: piano solo, ondes Martenot, celesta, vibraphone, percussion, women's choir, and string orchestra. That's not a simple assemblage of musicians to gather.

It's another example of wishing I could be in the room when this is performed. I guess that could be said of anything; I'd love to be in the hall again to see Turangalîla. 

And to think, this was music being made at the tail end of WWII. Things are twisted and fucked up now, but I can hardly imagine living in France, even at the tail end of the war.

Colors of the Heavenly City. I am on board for these 50s and 60s works. I don't mind that they're more strident than the the earlier works, but I find the 1940s pieces to be Messiaen at his prime and....most natural. His voice, most directly.

But is that fair for me to write? I don't know. Couleurs has the colors one might expect from a Messiaen piece: virtuosic piano, gongs and mallets, atonal brass chorales. But he's determinately avoiding anything resembling triadic harmony. Maybe that's what he wanted, or maybe it's what he did to stay current.

Hymne sounds quite a bit like Bernard Herrmann at the beginning, though there's a chord sequence that looks forward to Turangalîla. 

Has it taken 30 CDs of Messiaen's music to say I've had enough?

I'll say no, because I know there's one classic work left. Visions de l'Amen. I'll push on, even though I find this particular work uninteresting. And I love both Messiaen's and Herrmann's music.

Fantasie...very "classical". Structured. Even-tempered. Next.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Messiaen disc 29

Harawi (1945); Trois Mélodies (1930); La mort du Nombre (1930)

In keeping this blog, I'm reminded of a few basic facts.

I'll get to the music eventually.

First, I'm a sloppy proofreader. I write these blog postings rather quickly, and I've found that I've had to go back and correct grammar or clarify diction.

I'm not a great writer either. It just wasn't my calling, nor did I get involved with serious writing early enough in my career to really flex my chops. I am catching myself removing unnecessary words sometimes; I just removed the word "some" in the prior sentence before both "grammar" and "diction". It's an extraneous word. I also have been trying to avoid using the same descriptors often.

I have a friend, someone I know mostly from online interactions, but I have been around face-to-face. He's an excellent writer, and creates cogent and articulate statements, whether it's on a blog or even Facebook. He let on that he had been reading my blog posts. I thought, "What am I doing?"

Indeed, I can once again question this entire venture, modest as it may be. So what, I bought a big collection of Messiaen CDs, why write about them? Who even cares about my opinion? It's not as if I'm writing a serious review, or approaching anything resembling dedicated musicology.

I am concerned with digital noise. When I consider the internet, I sometimes think of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. The setting of the film is a society which is being crushed under the weight of its own bureaucracy. (My favorite scene is when Robert DeNiro shows up as the renegade plumber.)

I sometimes think of this when I find myself responding to Facebook postings. I stop and think, "Who cares? Why add to the blur of digital garbage? Who cares what you think?" That thought thankfully stops me, in some cases.

I guess I'm doing this for myself. I've touched on this before. I want to keep productive, keep a regular schedule during not only the summer but this pandemic. I pull weeds in our garden every day, for example.

I also want to experience something positive and express a few thoughts about it, even if they are not particularly deep. One could do the same for any great artist, find a large collection of his/her works, listen to those pieces on a regular schedule, write about it. I'd like to think it's a positive activity, and it seems to me we need more of that.

So if you've been following this, actually reading through my ramblings, have enjoyed or inspired by them in any way, wonderful. And thanks.

Which brings me to this CD! Harawi is subtitled "Song of Love and Death". I haven't done this before, but the Wikipedia page is informative, so why should I copy it?

I've gone on about my general dislike of vocalists and preference for instrumentalists. I have to say though, I find this piece to be beautiful. Listening to the majority of these discs confirms my preference for the composer's work in the 1940s. The majority of my favorite works of his were written between 1940-1951. He's sitting in an area that hasn't given up entirely on triads, but is broader and more modern sounding than his earlier, more blatantly post-Romantic composing style. What big, broad statements, too: this is about an hour's worth of music. And this is the period when he's composing the massive Turnangalîla, and the two-hour piano cycle Vingt Regards.

Unsurprisingly, it sounds like a demanding work for both pianist and especially soprano. There's a point near the end of the eighth movement where I don't know how a vocalist can deliver such a long, percussive line without breathing in the middle. It's the more still moments though, long notes in the voice, simple chords with bird-like melodies (mvmt. ten) I find the most striking.

The Trois Mélodies, an early work, has a touch of what turns up in the later Harawi. What might that be? I'm not doing anything in the way of serious analysis, but the first chords in the piece sound like the composer's hand. It's just an intuitive sense from having listened to so much at this point.

La mort also dates from 1930, this time set for soprano, tenor, violin, and piano. Death of the Number? I have no idea of its meaning, and I've decided not to look it up. There's still that touch of Messiaen harmonies, but this one really sounds like 19th century Romanticism to me. That's not so much for me.

Three more discs to go.

This is a blue jay fledgling we found in our yard two days ago we named Baby Blue. I heard it this morning in a neighbor's yard. I hope it survives.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Messiaen disc 28

O sacrum convivium, motet pour le Saint-Sacrement (1937); Quartour pour la fin du Temps (1940); Pièce pour piano et quartour à cordes (1991); Oiseaux exotiques (1956)

Another grab-bag of works from different times in the composer's life.

O sacrum is a lovely little work. It's vaguely tonal with some nice harmonic tensions and combinations. It's also quite short, clocking in at about four minutes. In a way it's an interesting pairing with what follows, even though the works are quite dissimilar.

That brings us to Messiaen's most famous composition, Quartet for the End of Time. It's better known for the circumstances of its creation than the music itself. It was written during the composer's internment in a German POW camp (NOT concentration camp) early in World War II. He had four instruments available: violin (with three strings), cello, clarinet, and piano.

That sounds great to me! I can hardly imagine a better chamber music combination, but then I'm partial to the clarinet.

I've read that the guards at the camp gave Messiaen some latitude in working on the piece, but he still had to sneak around to create it. This would have qualified as entartete musik, after all.

I've seen the Quartet performed live only a single time, by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble. The program started with a piece by Fred Rzewski for a vocalist also playing flower pots as semi-tuned percussion. Then came Quartet, followed by John Cage's 4'33", and ending with a piece by George Crumb for flute and three percussionists.

It was an absolutely beautiful program, even though I wouldn't qualify any of it was "new music". I took my wife to that one, and she said she really enjoyed it as well.

I did have a comment about following the Messiaen with the Cage. Are there still debates whether 4'33" is actually music? Probably not so much as, we've each made up our minds. In this program, it was used as an extend silence after the Messiaen. The four players walked off stage one by one, each extinguishing a candle when leaving.

I question if this was an appropriate interpretation of Cage's work. The piece is meant to be filled with the sound of the ambient world. When the players walked off the stage, their steps seemed thunderous in the middle of this huge silence. It seemed too....intentional. Active.

On the other hand, I can hardly imagine a better work (Quartet) to be followed by a long meditative silence. Sit and contemplate what you've just experienced. In that respect it was truly great, almost religious. Perhaps performances of Quartet should have instructions to the audience to sit in silent meditation for four minutes.

I wrote that I've only heard the piece performed in completion a single time. One movement of this piece is in unison. My former classroom at Carnegie Mellon University was next to the Eurhythmics studio. Every few semesters, I'd hear that melody being played during the final week of classes. I thought curiously once, "There isn't a flute in that piece!" (Just a final going on.)

As for the music? It's not fair to compare it to the motet mentioned above, though only three years separates them. By the time of this work, he's started to leave behind much of his post-19th century tendencies. There's more irregularity of rhythm, it's generally less rooted in tonality (with exceptions), and he's exercising many of the techniques he would later describe in The Technique of My Musical Language. The first publishing date I've found on that work is 1944, so it wouldn't be surprising to find he had started to organize those materials this far back.

What time in his creative life. The 1940s saw this work, Turangalîla, Vingt Regards, Visions de l'Amen, Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine (the last two I've heard before but are on subsequent discs in this set), his first book, among other works. What a time. It's fair to say that this, going into the 1950s, is my favorite period in this composer's body of work.

The eight movements of Quartet include two duets for cello and piano (one being a reworked earlier work for ensemble of ondes Martenot), a duet for violin and piano (a reworked earlier work for organ), a trio for violin, cello and clarinet, and a clarinet solo. I don't hear any direct bird quotations, but the clarinet solo movement is entitled "The Abyss of the Birds".

There are some fireworks along the way through the work, but the quieter movements really stand out. The piece ends on a very high note on the violin, fading away. A silence would indeed be appropriate.

Pièce would be one of Messiaen's final works. It's a short work that I'd never heard before. Not essential, but there are echoes of Quartet in the unison rhythmic writing for the strings. There's surprisingly little chamber music in Messiaen's oeuvre, and no string quartet music at all. Not his voice, I suppose.

Oiseaux exotiques is set for solo piano and chamber wind and percussion ensemble. It's another mostly (but I'd say not entirely) birdsong transcription and interpretation work. As I've written before, I used to be hired as a baritone saxophone ringer for the Carnegie Mellon Wind Ensemble. One year this piece was programmed, but of course Messiaen never wrote anything involving the saxophone. I still greatly looked forward to seeing the work, especially with my friend Donna Amato playing the difficult piano solo. What I recall is that I had a bad cough that night, barely got through whatever it is I played, and had to leave during this piece because my hacking would have disturbed anyone near me. At least I can listen to the recording.

Three discs to go, and there's a lot of music featuring the voice on those. I'll stay on the project though.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Messiaen disc 27

Fête des belles aux (1937); 4 Inédits pour piano et ondes Martenot (no year provided); Chant dans le style de Mozart (1986); Le Merle Noir (1951); Cinq Rechants (1948); Chants des déportés (1945)

And so, through the course of this 32-CD collection, we come to this odd grab-bag of works. 

And oddest of all would have to be the works for ondes Martenot. Assuming anyone reading this doesn't know anything about this instrument, it is an electronic keyboard instrument invented in 1928 by Maurice Martenot. In some ways it's a bit like a tamed and cultured theremin. I understand both rely on a heterodyne (different tone) for basic sound production, though the ondes Martenot has a much wider timbral range. I read that Leon Theremin himself felt ripped off by Martenot. The keyboard permits for much greater pitch accuracy, but there's also a wire with a ring that gives you the possibility of long glissandi. Like the standard theremin, pitches are controlled with the right hand, attacks and volume the left. Oh, just look at an image of one being played, taken from Wikipedia:

Most of the literature for the instrument is by French composers: Jolivet, Milhaud, Charpentier, etc. I was thrilled to find a copy of this LP at a Goodwill two years ago for $1.29:

And of course Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead has been playing one, or a more recent knock-off (I can't say which) since the time of Hail to the Thief, I believe. 

As for the piece, it is such a curiosity. The ondes Martenot is monophonic, so this piece collects six of them at once. From what I can tell, there's a lead voice with five to accompany. The first impression I had on initially listening to this work was that it sounds like an underwater soap opera organ. Not kind, I know. The piece is divided into eight (I think, there's a typo in the notes) movements which are more-or-less played continuously. Each movement refers to either water or fireworks, so he's in full programmatic mode here. 

The fourth movement, "Water", I've heard separately under the title "Oraison" ("Prayer"). It is a standout to be certain, and sounds most natural in the setting of multiple ondes Martenot. (What is the plural of ondes Martenot, anyway?) It's such a standout that he recycled the movement note-for-note as the cello and piano duet in Quartet for the End of Time. 

I'm previously unfamiliar with the Inédits (unpublished) works for ondes Martenot and piano. There's no year give but it unquestionably has the sound of a youthful work. It's performed by his wife Yvonne Loriod and her sister Jeanne. 

I don't mean to gloss over the topic, but there was some conflicts and unpleasantness in Messiaen's personal history. Yvonne was his second wife; his first wife was a violinist. Being Catholic, he couldn't divorce his first wife to be with his second, and there's something about the first being institutionalized. I don't want to write more than that because I haven't read about it in detail. He did wind up coupling with an extraordinarily talented musician and interpreter, and by all accounts they loved each other deeply. 

Chants indeed sounds rather like Mozart, perhaps just a bit more chromatic, but hardly idiomatically Messiaen.

Le Merle noir was one of the first Messiaen pieces I heard, the flute in that recording played by Severino Gazzelloni. I liked dropping that name because Eric Dolphy composed a piece entitled "Gazzelloni". Merle is a great little piece, a showcase for the flutist in particular. 

As if these pieces weren't all different enough from each other, this is followed by the Five Refrains for a capella mixed choir. It might be interesting to play movements of this next to movements of his orchestra music, because I hear strong similarities. The use of parallel moving harmonies for example, or the percussive syllables in the first movement that sound like a substitute for wood blocks in the orchestra. I guess I like hearing that this is, unlike the Chant, unquestionably idiomatically Messiaen. 

The disc ends with another oddity, a work for full choir and large orchestra, that clocks in at a little over 3.5 minutes. Ummmm, is that all? He goes on for so long sometimes, and here I say, more, more!

Next disc is more odds and ends, if you can count his most famous composition as an odd or an end.

Below is a screen shot of recent viewing stats of this blog. Turkmenistan???

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Messiaen disc 26

Poèmes pour Mi (1937); Réveil des oiseaux (1953); Sept Haïkaï (1962)

Pierre Boulez conducting the Cleveland Orchestra; Françoise Pollet, soprano on Poèmes; Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano on Réveil; Joela Jones, piano on Sept Haïkaï. 

I don't hate singers/vocalists, but I'm largely not attracted to them. Why is that?

I guess I've always been more a drawn to the instrumental sounds. When it comes to rock and pop groups, the vocalist is usually the "front man" (or woman, as it may be) but is frequently the least interesting person in the ensemble.

It probably doesn't help that I have a poor ear for lyrics, both appreciating them and frankly understanding them. And of course, everything here is in French.

Poèmes is youthful Messiaen, still working in a post-Romantic style. It's accomplished, perfectly nice, but not something that interests me personally.

Then was move on to Awakening of the Birds, which as far as I can tell is the first all-birdsong composition. The degree to which the composer takes liberties in his transcriptions and recreations of birdsongs is musicological question well beyond the scope of this modest blog. This predates the massive piano cycle Catalogue d'oiseaux, which in itself is not entirely birdsong representations, but birdsongs mixed with original musical statements.

I wonder, how much does it matter? I like the birdsong pieces. It's not possible, no matter how accurate his transcription skills might be, to recreate these sounds from nature in any way directly. It's interpretive. He's acting as composer when he assembles all of these materials.

It's no surprise that birdsongs pop up again in his Seven Haiku (Japanese Sketches). I've mentioned before that the 1960s was the composer's most "modernist" period, a time when he was working hard to not seem old-fashioned. These pieces sound only very vaguely Japanese. I think there's a clear indication that his preferences in percussion: bells, gongs, cymbals, mallets, may be inspired partially in Asian music.

The fourth movement, "Gagaku", is inspired by Japanese imperial court orchestral music. I know a little bit about gagaku and have collected various recordings of it. There's a touch of it here, the strings acting in place of the mouth organs (sho) that fill gagaku with its distinctive cluster-chord haze. But he's definitely not trying to recreate that music.

It sounds like a really tough ensemble piece to play, in addition to his usual piano gymnastics.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Messiaen disc 25

Eclairs sur l'Au-Delà (1991)

Disc 25, seven more to go. There are a few more orchestral recordings after this one, and then it's into the chamber music.

Keeping this blog going on a daily basis, listening to Messiaen and writing my thoughts, I don't know know how much more I can say to describe his music. I'll write a few things about this work later, but I'll go on a semi-related tangent first.

My daughter Jeannine has been staying with us for almost three months. She has been living in Brooklyn for years. When the pandemic hit and New York in particular was crushed by it, we urged her to get back to Pittsburgh and chill. None of us knew for how long, and thankfully she's able to work remotely.

We've done something in the city most Saturdays since her return. Sometimes it's walking those long Pittsburgh stairs, the longest of which is in Fineview (a neighborhood I don't think I've ever visited). Something that came up on her radar was St. Anthony Chapel in Troy Hill. The chapel boasts the largest collection of religious relics, over 5,000, in North America. I knew nothing about it, but, I was game to look.

Yesterday we we able to walk in, our third attempt to go. The first time, everything was locked up. There were four women in the parking lot, playing a game of bingo, as they might have any other Sunday. The second time, the chapel was closed because the wife of a worker had contracted covid-19.

Third time, we're in. It's a small church and it's pretty amazing inside. Before you come to any relics, you're flanked on each side by life-sized depictions of the Stations of the Cross. Above those is some wonderful stained glass depictions of various saints.

The room narrows, and that's where some of the relics are. Most of them are bone chips not even the size of a grain of rice. There's an occasional knuckle, and even a full skull. That's what's on display along the left and right aisles; there is much more behind the altar, many housed in beautifully constructed and decorated German casings. Supposedly there's a splinter from the cross of Christ, and a single thorn from the crown of thorns.

Well, without meaning disrespect to Catholics in general, I call bullshit on those two.

Can objects be imbued with magical power? When a significant person touches or uses a tool, does he or she leave some sort of energy behind on it? I had to wonder that when I visited the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, seeing row after row of guitars played by various people.

Truth told, I thought those could be given to some poor struggling kid to continue the legacy. There's no magic there.

My friend Reggie Watkins befriended Jimmy Knepper late in Jimmy's life, and the family gave him Jimmy's trombone. The one trombone he used since the 50s. Okay, that impresses me. It's the trombone on Mingus Ah Um. Damn.

What would I do if I could play Ornette Coleman's plastic Grafton saxophone? (Assuming it still exists.) I'd hesitate, but ultimately, yes I'd play it.

Returning to the RNR Hall of Fame: the most memorable (and chilling) objects in the collection were the pieces of the airplane fished out of Lake Monona. One piece had the name Otis, the second the name Redding. If you do believe in magic, those are certainly cursed.

As for Catholics and their relics...were it not for the fact that Catholicism is old and established, people might find this collecting of body parts of religious leaders and martyrs to be insane. And suppose that splinter from The Cross was real. If I came into physical contact with it, would I suddenly be filled with faith? Or, struck down dead due to my lack thereof?

No, I don't think so.

None this commentary is meant to cast aspersions on Messiaen's faith. If it is something that inspired him, drove his creativity, then I'm grateful. Well, I'm grateful for the inspirational and mystical side of Catholicism. Let's leave the less pleasant history of the Catholic Church aside for the time being.

And what of Eclairs sur l'Au-Delà? It's nice. It's a good piece. It's nothing you haven't heard from this composer before, but it's a worthy listen being the composer's last fully completed orchestral work. At this time in his life, he has (as I put it in an earlier post) earned the right to sound like Messiaen.

It's not for me to say that this work should have been shorter. BUT...if it was half its length, I'm certain it would be played far more often. I'll take it as is, though.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Messiaen disc 24

Concert à quatre (1992); Les Offrandres oubliées (1930); Un sourire (1989); Le Tombeau resplendissant (1931)

I took a day off from my Messiaen listening and posting, in case anyone noticed.

I excitedly bought this CD when it was released, particularly for the first work. I remember finding it to be disappointing. I didn't dislike it, but wasn't especially moved by it. I knew it was the composer's final work, and even then it was neither completed nor performed while he was alive. It's four movements, with a fifth never completed, and some of the orchestrations completed by others. I've also read that the second movement is a recycled version of an early work, a topic that will come up again before I've completed this box set.

Portions of the Concert sound especially late 19th-century, more than any of his works that I've heard dating past the 1930s. It's true of brief moments in the first and fourth movements, and essentially all of the second. It feels like an odd fitting with some of the composer's thornier piano writing in particular throughout the piece, which is more reminiscent of his composing in the 40 and 50s.

There is, as one might expect, dazzlingly virtuosic passages, particularly for the flute. It is played in this recording by Catherine Catlan, whose name I am unfamiliar. The other soloists are Heinz Holliger, Yvonne Loriod, and Mstislav Rostopovich, a great pedigree to be certain.

I'd rather have lesser Messiaen than none at all, but I don't see myself revisiting this work much more in the future.

All four works on this album, his two earliest extant compositions for orchestra and two of his last, all have a shadow of turn of the 20th century late Romanticism. It's not just that he's working with stretched but still present tonalism, but the broadness of expression is especially true of the early works. There's something of his melodic touch that comes through in particular on Offrandes.

Every composer has to start somewhere. The early works aren't bad, just not necessarily what I want out of this particular composer. If I'm going to dig through the majority of his work, then these pieces are essential for the continuity if not the originality. I understand the packaging of this collection; it's all individual CDs collected into a single box. They're organized more by instrumentation than chronologically. It would have been interesting to hear them in order of composition, though.

One more big orchestral suite on disc 25: Eclairs sur l'Au-Delà. And generally unlike this disc, back to Catholicism.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Messiaen disc 23

Chronochromie (1960); La Ville d'en Haut (1987); Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (1964)

Why am I doing this? Listening to this music, writing thoughts in a blog? Is this a constructive use of my time? Shouldn't I be writing about current events, or doing something about them?

Of course those things concern me. It's all too much sometimes: Covid-19, high unemployment, police brutality, a supposed president who still commands the adulation of about a third of this country, despite being a snide, bigoted, ugly, cheating, corrupt man-child.

For my own mental health, I need to leave those things behind sometimes. I have been trying to consistently get composing done (with some positive results), pick up an instrument now and then, stay on a more disciplined schedule. This listening and writing project is part of that schedule.

If there's a music that helps me leave the world behind, it's Messiaen's work. I know I can leave behind this Earthly plane for an hour a day. (But then I've chosen to write after each disc, and I'm back again.)

Maybe it's all self-serving, maybe I have no new insights into this music. So be it. I make this blog available to read, but I don't really expect anyone to follow it.

This particular disc has three large ensemble compositions, performed by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Pierre Boulez. That's a great pedigree, and the results prove it.

If Turangalîla is the composer at his more Romantic, Canyons his more impressionistic side, then Chronochromie is certainly Messiaen at his most classical. That is, structural and coolest. It is, for some movements though, very heavy on the birdsongs.

I've discussed this era of his music, mid-50s into the 60s, with an expert in his music. Part of that conversation came down to this: Messiaen was getting to be more old-guard at this point, and his students had taken over as the vanguard. His Catholicism and post-Romantic leanings seemed like they were old-fashioned. In response, or perhaps under the influence of the proceeding generation, Messiaen's music became more atonal and arguably more strident. There are no resolutions on major chords here.

 La Ville, a late work, feels like a compressed single-movement summation of elements of Chronochromie, Canyons, and other works in that time that haven't come up in the box set yet. There's a virtuosic piano solo in the middle, group voicings in woodwinds and strings, prominent mallet parts, more birdsongs.

Et exspecto is a work I've heard live, played by the Duquesne University Wind Ensemble. I'm certain I heard it on a program with Stravinsky's Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments. And here's why this particular work gets some play: it can be played by a good-level university wind ensemble. I've just looked up that La Ville  for wind ensemble and piano, as are several other works.

For a number of years, I was hired as a ringer to play baritone saxophone in the Carnegie Mellon Wind Ensemble. They didn't have the majors to cover the part. I enjoyed doing it, and the money wasn't bad either.

Towards the end of those years, one of the directors (the job was split between several faculty members) programmed two Messiaen works for wind ensemble and solo piano. Great, I thought! Music I would love to play! Well, not so much. No saxophones in Messiaen's sound world. Darn it.

Pencilled price on the Chronochromie score: $120. Yikes.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Messiaen disc 22

Des canyons aux étoiles, part three

Disc 22 seems to be corrupted or misprinted. Thanks a lot, DG! Some high standards there. I have a physical copy of this work, but I can't find that either (it might be at school, inaccessible). I've done a checkout and streaming from the phone app hoopla. It's a sort of virtual library. I signed on with my Carnegie Library account. Ebooks, CDs, movies, audiobooks. I'll have to check more thoroughly, but there might be a recording or two of some Messiaen not included in this set. If I've gone this far, might as well take it all in.

Canyons continues similarly as before: generally sparer and less dense ensemble passages than Turangalîla, more time devoted to solo piano, focus on birdsongs. There is subtext, quoted inspirations, for some of the movements. Some sacred, some secular, all having to do with stars, deserts, stones.

I'll write again that I love his orchestrations. Those beautiful flute and clarinet lines (there's some virtuosic piccolo playing in this), the lush, deep brass chords, his use of mallets and gongs.

I didn't mention the wind sound he brings in now and then. One of those radio effects devices that you turn to simulate wind? I'm hearing several things at once, including possibly a brass mouthpiece (presumably the horn soloist). He's not just trying to evoke the wind blowing through the valleys of the canyons, he's raising it almost literally.

I suggested in my previous post that this was Messiaen's post-Impressionist work. I recalled a story that I read. Erik Satie attended the premiere of Claude Debussy's Le Mer (The Sea). Despite Debussy's disdain for the term, it's arguably quite Impressionistic. The first movement is "From Dawn to Midday on the Sea". Satie saw the composer afterwards and commented (and I'm not writing this verbatim), "I liked that section that was half-past 10."

I'd like to think this really happened. It's funny anecdote but it's a good reflection of my feelings about trying to "express" things in music too literally. I don't mean being expressive, that's something different. I mean programmatic characteristics, literally trying to tell a story in sound. I love Messiaen's music but he does engage in that sometimes.

I'm currently composed a set of pieces under the general title Meditations on Quarantine. There's one piece that is, appropriately enough, dedicated to the birds that seemed to have kept us company during the self-quarantine. But it sounds absolutely nothing like birds.

On the other hand, John Cage came to believe it was pointless trying to express anything in music. I understand his viewpoint but don't entirely agree with that attitude either. I like being thrilled or moved by music. What music, is a matter of my personal taste.

More large ensemble pieces on the next disc. Let's hope the CD works.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Messiaen disc 21

Des canyons aux étoiles (1974) parts one and two

Yesterday I listened to Turangalîla-Symphonie twice through on CD, and even watched part of a performance on Youtube. I love and am moved by the work to that extent.

In the course of the box set, I now come to From the Canyons to the Stars, a slightly longer but quite different orchestral work. There are a few commonalities. Both are as much piano concerti as symphonies, with Turangalîla adding an ondes Martenot soloist; Canyons adds horn and mallet soloists. Then there's that Messiaen factor, how it simply sounds like this is his music.

Otherwise, the works are very dissimilar. Turangalîla reduces to piano solo at various points through the work, but generally it is dense, rich, with most of the ensemble active at any given time. Even its least active movement, "Jardin du sommeil de l'amour", maintains an underlying sumptuousness of sound. Canyons is almost the opposite. It's far more spare, even in ensemble passages. More time is devoted to piano solos. There are no broad harmonic cadences here. The former work hints at birdsong; the latter includes quite a bit of his birdsong transcriptions arranged for instruments. Several movements are specifically dedicated to birds.

Turangalîla is Messiaen's grand post-Romantic statement. Much of doesn't sound like 19th century orchestral music, but the effect is the same: excitement, passion, inducement strong emotional reaction. Canyons is his large post-Impressionist statement. Again, sounding nothing like Ravel, Debussy, or John Ireland, he's often painting an aural picture of his subject.

Canyons was inspired by a trip to the United Stated taken by the composer. He visited at least one canyon, and was inspired by the colors: layers of rich reds, oranges, browns, and the shapes of the formations. Bryce Canyon and Zion Park are specifically cited in the movement titles.

A lot of time has passed between the two works, and there are other orchestral works in between. Those works would probably be his most "modernist" sounding, though I'll get to that then those discs turn up in the queue.

The second half is on the next disc.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Messiaen disc 20 part two


I'm back to listening to this work for the second time today. The first time, I followed along with the score I have, which once belonged to Easley Blackwood. It's falling apart, just like his copy of Vingt Regards that I now possess.

It's a large, long work, though neither his largest nor longest. The recording comes in at 79 minutes, just barely able to fit on a CD. It was recorded under the composer's supervision, Myung-Whun Chung conducting, Yvonne Loriod on piano and Jeanne Loriod on ondes Martenot. There's little doubt that he wanted this to be the definitive recording of this work. That's assuming you believe in such labels. Without question though, future performances and recordings would probably do well to refer back to this performance.

I don't follow scores particularly well, but I didn't get lost most of the time. I could generally follow one line or instrument group clearly, and most often the piano. The work is at times dense, and it's difficult for me to imagine someone really knowing this score. But it's not my field of expertise. It was nice to sometimes take in visually the various layers of events happening at any one time. There's so much activity in the piece, it's easy to miss the details.

There's an exuberance to this work, a joie de vivre, I don't often find in Messiaen's other works (much as I love them). There's also no specific Catholic subtext. The word "turangalîla", as any simple web search will uncover, is a compound word taken from Sanskrit. The first half refers to time, time which gallops or flows; the second means play, in a divine sense of creation and destruction, life and death.

I've read a bit about this piece. I've probably forgotten most of what I read. His intended subtext, which I think I do recall, is that this work is about passion, Earthly love, even physical love. That is most demonstrable in the sixth movement, "Jardin de sommeil d'amour" ("Garden of Love's Sleep"). It's painting a picture with sound: in a lush garden at dusk, two lovers recline and sleep, while a single bird sings its evening song. Specifically, Tristan and Isolde. The birdsong in this case is not a literal transcription, but a musical impression of a bird.

Some movements move from idea to idea with great rapidity; the second and eight movements in particular rarely sit on any one idea for very long. On the other hand, "Jardin" is mostly one idea (or one set of ideas) worked over for its length.

I found myself at the point of tears that first listening today. How could anything be so beautiful? I know that I'm exactly the sort of person receptive to enjoying a work such as this, unlike the players mentioned in my previous post. I find this music to be very powerful.

Messiaen completed this at 40 years of age. Not a young composer, but he still had nearly forty years of work ahead of him.

I think this piece stands toe-to-toe with the greatest of symphonic music, regardless of period. I don't throw the word "masterpiece" around lightly, but there it is. It's probably my favorite work for symphony orchestra.

Des canyons aux étoiles is next in the box set. It's a little longer than this.

PS: You know that in the television show Futurama, Leela's full name is Turangalila?

Messiaen disc 20 part one

Turangalîla-Symphonie (1948)

And here we have it. The masterpiece, at least in my humble estimation. I have so many thoughts and recollections regarding this work, I find it difficult to organize what it is I might write.

Of all of Messiaen's compositions, this is the only one I can recall hearing played twice. The first was by the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic some time in the mid-1990s. They had string of a few years in which there was some sort of modern and unusual programming for their big spring concert. Others included an all-Xenakis concert (with the composer in attendance), all-Scelsi, and the last being an all-George Crumb series in 2002 (again with the composer in attendance). I know there was some pushback at throwing the resources of the department into such ambitious projects. The Scelsi concert, and almost certainly the performance of Turangalîla, were each more than a year in preparation and rehearsal. At least I enjoyed them.

It was wonderful to hear Turangalîla performed, and the ensemble did mostly a good job. I knew the work well enough to know that the extremely difficult seventh movement was pretty ragged, but it never fell completely apart. It's quite dense at times and has frequent and sudden tempo changes.

The work calls for such a large orchestra that ringers from the community needed to be hired. That included several of my friends. I saw Lisa Miles after the the performance, and told her about what a joy it was for me to see this work performed. She told me that many of the students absolutely hated it, complained frequently about having to play it, how ugly and unmelodic they thought it was. Taste is personal, but I found that attitude surprising. I guess if all you want to play is Mozart and Haydn, you might feel this way. But then, if you are hired to play in an orchestra (or any ensemble), and you don't like particular music that's programmed, SHUT UP. Play that music to the absolute best of your ability and don't say a damned word about your opinion. Otherwise it makes you a shitty musician, no matter how amazing you might be. And if you're a student, learn something from the experience.

The second performance I attended was by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, a good decade or so later. There was something of a promotional build-up leading to that weekend, having to do with the history of the work in Pittsburgh.

It's easy to forget now that at one time Andre Previn was the principle conductor of the PSO. In 1977, he decided to program Turangalîla for three consecutive days (this was customary at the time). In looking up the date, I was very interested to find that the piano soloist was Pierre-Laurent Aimard (whose recording of Vingt Regards is considered by some to be definitive) and the composer's sister-in-law Jeanne Loriod played the ondès Martenot.

The story goes that the audience couldn't run out of the hall fast enough during the first performance. On the second night, Andre gave an impassioned (and possibly angry) defense of the work, and the audience mostly stuck around.

For the most recent performances, the conductor came out in advance of the concert and talked through some of the elements of the work. His commentary probably helped a little. Most people stayed, but there were those who walked out.

I was teaching at CAPA High School at the time (Creative and Performing Arts). I was very excited and talked up the performance to teachers and especially students. PSO members would semi-regularly come to the instrumental department and give short recitals. One player came around this time; I think he played second violin. I asked him about Turangalîla, and he took on a look of mild disgust. He said thought the piece should be shorter, and then it might be played more often. I think he was just avoiding saying that he hated the work and didn't want to have to play it, similar to those CMU students before him.

Well, screw him. There are shorter and more modest Messiaen orchestral works, but I'm going to venture a guess they don't get played as often as this piece is. Because this is Turangalîla. Top of the mountain.

So far I haven't mentioned a word about the music. I think I'll save that for a subsequent post. Maybe I'll even listen to the piece again.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Messiaen disc 19

I had to skip two days in my Messiaen listening project. Real life has a way of rearing its head, and I just didn't have much of an opportunity.

Today sees me listening to the third and final act of Saint François d'Assise. I've been reading some commentary online about productions of this work. It's very long, complex, dense, requires a large orchestra and choir, has enormous technical requirements, and even requires three ondes Martenot. (ondes Martenots?)

One comment made was that Messiaen preferred the orchestra, the instruments, as the true conveyors of emotional content. I think it's clear when listening to this opera. I know it's partly my own bias in favor of instrumental ensembles, but the most interesting moments in the work overall tend to be the instrumental sections. There is some gloriously dense writing for the choir in the third act, where the vocal ensemble is more prominently featured than any other section of the opera.

Indeed, I find the third act to generally be more dramatic (there's that word again, I must consult a thesaurus) than the previous acts. In the libretto, Francis is experiencing the stigmata, and then death and resurrection.

It's huge, colorful, builds wonderfully, and still occasionally refers back to previously stated musical phrases and ideas. But it's taken a really long time to get to this point.

I recognize a use of repetition in this work that is similar to that of Turangalîla. There's a particular musical phrase that the orchestra plays, an especially Messiaen-like melody, that pops up many times in the opera. I haven't counted how many, but I'd guess at least a dozen. Usually it's after a vocal phrase, most often played in unison but sometimes is harmonized.

I don't think of this as a motif or leitmotif, more like a musical marker, signpost, or perhaps punctuation. There's a brass chorale in Turangalîla that is used similarly. There are several such phrases in Saint François.

I've read that comment, more than once, that the size and scale of this opera is comparable only to the largest of Wagner's operas. I'd argue that Stockhausen's seven cycles of operas that make up Licht are in some cases probably equally complicated and huge, though those are even less traditionally "operatic" than this work. I mean, the Helicopter String Quartet alone, taken from Wednesday from Light, is a monumental undertaking.

I can't state what I think a composer should have done, only what I would be preferred. I'll stress the point again, it's a long work. An hour less of material, I think I would have been more engaged with the piece.

But without seeing the work in person, which I suspect I will never have the opportunity to do, it's a paled experience compared to being there in person. Would I be enthralled from beginning to end, or would I be waiting for the the thing to wrap up? I can be very patient with some things, and very impatient with others, but I suppose we all can be like that.

Will I listen to this opera again? In fairness, I didn't listen to it all in a single day, so that's cheating a bit. If I do, I might skip to the final act.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Messiaen disc 18

Saint François d'Assise
    Sixième Tableau: Le Prêche aux oisseaux

And so we come to the centerpiece of the opera, "The Sermon to the Birds".

The opera is really quite beautiful, even if it's a form I'm disinclined to enjoy.

One more opera disc to go, and then it's Turangalîla. The opera and organ recordings? I am sometimes forcing myself to experience all of the. But, Turangalîla, I don't need an excuse to listen to that one. I'm sure I'll have some things to write.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

To Anthony on his birthday

I can't recall the first time I heard Anthony Braxton's music. He was a name floating around as I was starting to listen to Ralph Records artists and Sun Ra.

There's a slow monophonic duet piece on his duet record with Joesph Jarman, bells ringing, that I heard played on the old WYEP that really stirred me.

I was really moved by Graham Lock's book Forces in Motion. As in, I not only want to play this music, this is a person I want to be. During the days of Water Shed 5tet, I transcribed (mostly accurately) several of Anthony's quartet pieces for us to play. Those works always offered a view past my own limitations, ways of looking at both composition and improvisation that opened ideas.

We opened for his nine-piece Ghost Trance ensemble at the Three Rivers Arts Festival in 1998. He caught some of our set, and told me, "At last! Someone knows how to play my music right!" (I resisted the urge to say, "Yes, because we REHEARSE it.")

Through the years I've accumulated many Braxton recordings. It's a funny thing. He goes on about techniques, strategies, methods, and yet he's utterly intuitive.

I helped put together a Braxton mini-festival in Pittsburgh in 2008. It was an immense amount of work, but I'll never regret it. I get to chalk my name up next to all the other individuals who have recorded duet sessions with AB, for one thing.

Anthony turned 75 today. That in itself is a small miracle. He described to me his heart attack, how much he smoked and drank prior to that event.

I've currently been listening to a 32-CD box set of Messiaen's music. It's time to break from that and listen to what I think is possibly his best (group) performance: the Dortmund (Quartet) 1976 recording. This concert breathes fire. And its Anthony at his strangely-most-melodic. Not that it's so essential, but I enjoy this period.

Happy birthday to you, sir.

Messiaen disc 17

Saint François d'Assise
    Deuxième Acte/Quatrième Tableau: L'Ange Voyageur

The opening instrumental section on this disc is my favorite of the opera so far: a fast-moving series of sections that sound alternately like Debussy, Schoenberg, birdsong, Bernard Herrmann. The fourth track on the CD sounds like something reminiscent of the famous polychord in Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps. I only draw comparisons, it's all Messiaen in the end.

Dawn Upshaw plays the angel to José van Dam's Francis. Considering she is the only female solo voice in the ensemble, when she sings, it cuts through.

I still have several discs of opera to go after this one, but I think I'm warming up to this work as it progresses. It must be a hell of a production to stage. I know it played New York within the last decade. I thought about traveling to see it, but didn't stay on top of the situation.

I read a book of interviews with Messiaen many years ago. It was translated from French, as he almost determinately refused to learn any other language. (I might say the same for myself, but there's no international demand for anything I do.) He said that he considered St. Francis to be the closest to Jesus and divinity, other than Jesus himself. (Paraphrasing.) For that fact, and the legendary sermon to the birds, it makes sense that St. Francis would be the subject of Messiaen's one opera.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Messiaen disc 16

Saint François d'Assise (1983) (in three acts and eight screens)

Leaving Trump and the current world behind, hitting the mid-way point in this box set of CDs, I have come to Messiaen's opera, St. Francis of Assisi. The first of four discs, the largest work by far.

It would come as a surprise to nobody that I am not generally a fan of opera. And I think I can express the reasons.

First is the period of grand opera. Opera as a form dates back to Monteverdi, and it was an innovation at the time: combine acting, staging, text, vocal and instrumental music, all in one art form. Opera reached its heights of popularity and influence in the latter half of the 19th century, music that generally doesn't move me much. When one thinks of opera, is it Mozart? Or Debussy? John Adams? More likely Verdi, Puccini, Wagner. Latter period Romanticism. I don't deny those mens' talents, I'd just rather listen to something else.

Another reason: well, I've always had a bias in favor of instruments over singers. That's not to say I hate singers, but more often than not I'd rather they got out of the way so I could listen to the rest of the band.

Then there's the broad style of vocalization practiced by most operatic singers. I understand the need: projection first and foremost. One singer on stage, orchestra in a pit below, large concert hall, pre-electric amplification, you need to be heard and understood. That requires a very particular skill set. But I don't have to find it attractive in sound. I prefer a less broad style of vocalizing in general.

And finally, I really don't care about telling a story in music. Musical works can be highly (here I use the word again) dramatic, but I'm disinterested in telling a specific story.

There are no absolutes though. I won't say I dislike all operas, because I don't. I won't say I dislike all storytelling in music, because why would I limit myself in such a way? And I certainly don't hate all vocalists, there are those I love and respect and even collaborate with some.

So I come to this opera. From the first measures, he accepts that this is an opera in the traditional sense of singers/ensemble/staging/acting etc. But there's no overture. No arias. I want to say we're in Francis' world immediately, but I'm not following the libretto in any way.

The first disc is broken up into smaller tracks. I can hear him working over musical ideas, even if I have no idea what the libretto is. Melodies and harmonies appear, recur, are worked over. the relationship between the voice of St. Francis and the ensemble is at times conversational, sometimes at odds.

I've made the point before, but every measure sounds like Messiaen.

This is the first disc in the set with ondes Martenot on it. There are three. More on that later for certain.

As far as I can tell, it's mostly St. Francis in the narrative on the first disc. I'm about 3/4 of the way through it when Dawn Upshaw appears as the angel. As I'm listening to the recording, a song sparrow was singing outside the window, oblivious to humans. It seemed right.

There are three discs to go. I will listen to it all, I promise.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Messiaen disc 15

La Transfiguration de notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ
    Deuxième Septénaire (parts 8-15)

I'm staring down my keyboard, knowing I have to write a few things, unsure where to start.

This little exercise of mine, listening to this 32-CD Messiaen box set and writing thoughts as I do, all seems trivial at the moment. Yesterday Donald Trump ordered military police to clear away peaceful protestors (within their rights on public land) with tear gas and force, so he could walk across the street to St. John's Church. The purpose, in addition to appearing tough on baddies, was to have a photo op of him smugly holding up a bible. A book he's never read nor has any understanding of its contents. Violence against citizens for image.

I can't think of a more loathsome person. Perhaps all of his sycophantic enablers, such as Mitch McConnell, William Barr, Fox "News", Jerry Falwell Jr, etc etc, and his far-too-many supporters. I don't understand any of it.

For as much as I hate this so-called president, I also pity him in some respects. That pity wouldn't allow for mercy, given the chance, but there's a tiny part of me that feels sorry for him. He doesn't know empathy. He doesn't know beauty. I'm sure he doesn't understand or enjoy art, or music, or literature. Everything is acquisition. Everything is power, favors, image, money. What a sad, pathetic, weak human being he is.

This is who America elected president (sort-of). Thanks a bunch, assholes.

This is not an act of resistance, but I refuse to allow him to take my enjoyment of music. I believe music doesn't necessarily need to serve a purpose other than itself. That opens the question of what music is and what is its purpose. I'm not going to tackle that large issue here and now.

Just because music exists for its own sake, doesn't mean it has no other purposes or meanings. There are the social aspects of music that I think as sometimes obscured in these days of digital proliferation (not to mention current social distancing). And when I write of "beauty" (I continue to return to that word in these texts), that word can mean many things. Music doesn't even need to be beautiful, it can be brutal, ugly, despondent, or at least evoke such things. At times I've wanted listen to music that was dark and severe. For more than to weeks after Trump's election, I only listened to the darkest records I had or could locate.

So here I sit, listening to this work of Messiaen. It's lovely, or at least it speaks to me. I wrote in my previous post that I wish I could be in the room with it as it was being performed. I have a feeling at times it would be almost overwhelming.

And I say, bring it.

I don't always enjoy big and broad statements, but there are those works that I want to feel like they have overtaken me, swallowed me up. My man Olivier has written at least one or two others, and I think I'd include this work on that list.

To mention a little more about the piece itself: he's chosen to write a good deal of the choral parts as unisons or octaves. It's almost chant-like at times (he lectured on plainchant), and the back-and-forth between unison lines, soloists, ensembles, and fully harmonized choir and ensemble, feels almost Renaissance-like.

These are the first discs in this set with ensemble music, and I'm thinking about his orchestration style. Power punctuations by brass, color from the woodwinds, birdsongs in the flutes and clarinets, his love of gongs and mallets.

I don't think I'll continue to describe the music. Maybe in a future post I'll attempt to put words to such things, rather than describe a few cursory details.

After one of my posts a couple of days ago, someone wrote to me to ask if I was okay. I want to assure anyone who has the patience to have read this far that I am. That is, as far as any of us are okay right now. I don't expect any of my postings to really mean anything. Perhaps it's all a big vanity project. But, at least it's not destructive. I've been listening to music that I find inspiring, so that's never bad.

PS. Fuck Donald Trump.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Messiaen disc 14

La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1969)
Premier Septénaire. Seven movements.

I purchased a vinyl copy of this fairly recently, so the work is still fresh in my mind.

The opening percussion. The chant-like unison choir melody, but a melody that couldn't have been written by anyone else.

I'm all in. This is classic Messiaen. I know his music well enough to pick up on resemblances to his opera and Turangulîla in particular, and I'm fine with that.

It is scored for mixed choir, seven instrumental soloists, and large orchestra. In my post yesterday I referred to this as (maybe) his oratorio. Cantata might be closer. I imagine he'd chafe at the comparison.

I wonder how difficult a work this is to sing? The unison passages sound...doable. Not easy, but quite performable. It's the denser harmonies that I wonder about. The choir sounds great, and the voicings are beautiful.

The piano soloist is again Roger Muraro, who is apparently DG's in-house Messiaen interpreter on the instrument. (I looked ahead in the booklet for the box set, and he's not on some of the other discs.)

I'm so happy to be able to listen to this work on CD, but I would love to be in the room when this is being performed. I'm sure it's a moving experience.

This disc is just 35 minutes, about 1/3 of the piece overall. I might take in the rest later tonight.