Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Messiaen and the Twenty-First Century

Sixteen years after his death, the distinctive voice of Olivier Messiaen still resonates through much of today’s contemporary music. His eclectic, yet instantly recognisable tonal palette and rhythmic ideas have helped to define the musical priorities of successive generations of younger composers. Messiaen had the unusual and enviable position of a progressive artist with a genuinely popular following. And as a teacher he seems to have taken on an almost mythical status for aspiring composers, with his classes at the Paris Conservatoire attracting pupils from around the world. Many of Messiaen’s ideas live on in the work of these pupils, but personal advocacy is only part of the story, and Messiaen’s continuing relevance to new music is evident in a wide array of compositional approaches and styles.
Some aspects of Messiaen’s legacy are easy to define. For the whole of his adult life he held the position of titular organist at the church of La Trinité in Paris. The music he wrote for the organ there virtually created a modernist repertoire for the instrument from scratch. And the ondes martenot benefited immeasurably from his advocacy. The ondes, an electronic keyboard instrument invented in the 1920s, figures prominently in a number of Messiaen’s scores, most notably the Trois petites liturgies and the Turangalîla-symphonie. The survival of this quintessentially analogue device into the digital age owes much to the established repertory status of these works.
But other dimensions of Messiaen’s art remain with us in less tangible forms, aspects of his aesthetics and musical philosophy that remain common currency among living composers. This is partly explained by his long a committed teaching career, bringing him into direct contact with the major figures of later generations. Regular performances of Messiaen’s music around the world have also helped maintain its profile. And it has proved worthy of the high exposure, losing none of its relevance or originality and continually defying its status as music of a past millennium.
Messiaen specialised in large scale music, vast organ cycles with up to eighteen movements and orchestral works requiring unprecedented instrumental resources. But in the 1950s and 60s it seemed that his most significant and lasting contribution to musical culture would be an austere piano work lasting just over three minutes. Mode de valeurs et d'intensités was written in 1949 when Messiaen was teaching at the Darmstadt summer school. The Darmstadt courses were a catalyst for many developments in post-war music, with like-minded composers coming together and sharing ideas. The biggest idea in the late 40s was the removal of arbitrary or intuitive factors in musical composition in favour of mathematically constructed rigour. Arnold Schoenberg’s theory of serialism was the inspiration for this approach. Schoenberg applied numerical sequences to the pitch content of his later works but relied on fairly traditional (not to say traditionalist) compositional techniques when it came to rhythm, articulation and musical form. Messiaen was never a serialist, but for his pupils at Darmstadt Mode de valeurs was a powerful stimulus for the advancement of serial composition. Messiaen’s short piece formalises the relationship between pitch, rhythm and attack by attributing a set duration and articulation to each pitch. The work is rhythmically complex but puts across an undeniable sense inner logic to the listener. Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, amongst others, soon realised that this idea could be combined with Schoenberg’s system of pitch series in order to interconnect every aspect of a work’s composition with a mathematically rigorous logic. By the mid-1950s works like Stockhausen's Kreuzspiel and Boulez’ Structures, both based on this system of ‘total serialism’ were heading towards manifesto status for the new avant-garde. For a time, modernist composition in Western Europe was dominated by this approach, with its now ennobled practitioners (Boulez in particular) dismissing any other form of composition as redundant. The hegemony finally waned in the 1960s, but the combination of the complex and the rigorous lives on in many forms. New complexity, the musical ethos linked to Brian Ferneyhough and a number of his pupils and followers, including Richard Barrett and James Dillon, has inherited much from Boulez, Stockhausen and their contemporaries. These composers lead the contemporary music scene in terms of the richness and rigour of their rhythmic manipulation. Messiaen was perhaps not the only source for this elevation of rhythm in modernist composition, but his work proved an important catalyst.
Back in Paris, the idea of applying mathematical rigour to music was taking another of Messiaen’s pupils in a different direction. Iannis Xenakis arrived in Paris in 1947 after a colourful career as a teenage fighter in the Greek resistance and attended Messiaen’s Conservatoire classes from 1950 to 1952. Xenakis’ approach to music had always had a mathematical flavour, but arriving in Paris he found himself expected to study the traditional compositional disciplines of harmony and counterpoint. Xenakis was unwilling (and also apparently unable) to bring these traditional techniques to bear on his music. But Messiaen was sympathetic to Xenakis’ formalising tendencies, at the time so in line with his own, and encouraged him to continue experimenting. The result was a completely new musical aesthetic in which number theory, statistics and probability eclipse traditional forms of sound manipulation. Much of today’s computer music is indebted to Xennakis’ pioneering work, from the musical fractals of Charles Dodge and Rolf Enström to the algorithmic permutations of Paul Lansky, Morton Subotnik and even Brian Eno.
But characterising Messiaen as the father (or perhaps godfather) of mathematical music highlights a paradox, for the majority of his works are expressive and melodic. Pieces such as Modes de valeurs and the occasionally ‘dodecaphonic’ (to use Messiaen’s description) Livre d’orgue date from a relatively brief period of experimental activity. For Messiaen, music was essentially a symbolic medium with a power of expression that encompassed both the spiritual and the sensual. The application of rigorous compositional procedures opened up new technical possibilities, but the resulting abstraction conflicted with his desire to communicate and express through sound. In the mid-1950s he turned away from these predominantly cerebral composition techniques and turned instead to the sound of birdsong. Messiaen valued the immediacy and melodic richness of music derived from birdsong transcription. He was not the first composer to intimate the sounds of birds (Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons contain famous examples) but he was the first to integrate its melodic content as a fundamental compositional principle rather than merely a decorative addition. Major works such as Réveil des oiseaux and Oiseaux exotiques are constructed entirely of birdsong transcriptions and explore the musical potential of the irregular phrase patterns and erratic variations practiced by the birds themselves. The integration of birdsong into compositional technique has taken a number of different directions in the work of later composers. Of Messiaen’s pupils, François-Bernard Mâche has taken to analysing the sound organisation within birdsong to inform the deeper structure of his work, and Jean-Louis Florenz has combined Messiaen’s fidelity to the sounds of birds with more traditional narrative structures. Elsewhere, the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe has introduced the string quartet to the sounds of birdcalls, evoking his homeland through its birds. Torsten Aagaard-Nilsen has drawn on birdsong as a melodic resource in his music for brass band, while the young British composer Tarik O’Regan has returned to the intrinsically vocal quality of bird calls in his recent choral work Dorchester Canticles.
From the mid-1970s Messiaen concentrated his creative energies on large-scale composition, producing some of his largest works such as Des canyons aux étoiles, the monumental five hour opera Saint François d'Assise, and his final completed orchestral work, the eleven movement Eclairs sur l'Au-delà. Often slow but never thin, these expansive soundscapes return a sense of breadth and perspective to modern music that for decades had idealised miniature forms and finely wrought textures. His devout faith played an important part in this process. These large-scale works have none of the megalomania of the late romantics. Instead he acts as a humble witness before the vastness of creation, reflecting its richness and its scope with a devotional sincerity that imbues these vast temporal spans with ritualistic significance. Not liturgical ritual (for which Messiaen considered only Gregorian chant appropriate) but rather the enactment of a deep spiritual engagement with nature and with the universe.
Messiaen’s music encouraged many modernist composers to look up from the details of their scores and to open their music up to broader perspectives of time and space. In France, the Spectralist movement, founded in 1972 by a group of composers including Messiaen’s former pupils Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail, began writing works based on the computer analysis of instrumental sounds. Having established the basic compositional material with the computer technology they then returned it to traditional instruments and wrote a string of vast but engaging works in which the inner nature of sound forms is explored. Pieces such as Gondwana by Murail or Grisey’s Les espaces acoustiques commune with their basic acoustical elements within vast aural soundscapes, and the example of Messiaen’s majestic largo movements helps them to transcend the dry technicality of their genesis.
In Japan, a country that has long had deep affiliations with French music, Messiaen’s large-scale works demonstrated how western compositional practice could operate outside of Western notions of temporal linearity and come closer to eastern thought. Toru Takemitsu, the leading Japanese composer of the late 20th century saw his music as the direct descendant of Messiaen’s and made a conscious effort to continue these temporal innovations. In Eastern Europe, Messiaen’s combination of musical breadth and the spiritual engagement provided a model for a new kind of religious music. A generation of composers in the Eastern Bloc sought to return to devotional subjects as the state imposition of secularism in the arts crumbled. Messiaen’s approach to musical time acted as a link between the earlier avant-garde experimentation of these composers and the spiritual dimension they now sought. Unlike Messiaen himself, composers such as Henryk Górecki, Krzysztof Penderecki, Arvo Pärt and Giya Kancheli combined expansive musical forms with liturgical settings, thereby fully realising the Christian dimension of this devotional aesthetic.
The second half of the 20th century was a time of rapid diversification in creative music making, and this diversity is perhaps the century’s most valuable bequest to the music of today. Messiaen appears as a catalyst for many new music traditions. Indeed, the very diversity of his output has proved to be an important part of its significance. Messiaen’s changes of direction (often within a single work) and borrowings from other cultures foreshadow similar tendencies in Stockhausen’s music, most notably Telemusik and Hymnen, and later in the whole project of musical postmodernism. Messiaen was never really an establishment figure, but nor was he an anti-establishment reactionary. Working in eras when modern music was otherwise confined by stylistic orthodoxies, Messiaen was determined to follow his own artistic path. Teaching brought him into personal contact with successive generations of younger composers, and he acted as a mentor to some of today’s biggest names. But Messiaen was first and foremost a composer, and his significance to the music of today is primarily a result of his leading by example, an example that has proved popular with modernists and postmodernists alike.