Friday, June 30, 2006

Sources and Re-explorations, Part Two: Olivier Messiaen

Of all Olivier Messian's works, CHRONOCHROMIE (1959-1960 ) is the one I seem to return to over and over. It might be that its scale-- just under a half-hour long-- suits me perfectly; Certainly, the piece appeals because of the way it addresses and illustrates, in one place, most of its composers concerns: bird song, rhythmic transformation, orchestral texture as color and vision.
I listened to CHRONOCHROMIE again a few weeks ago, on a rainy morning when I'd risen to strong coffee and the sounds of a very lush dawn chorus. Concepts of time and color--Chrono and Chromie-- are at the heart of the work, and Messiaen uses complex rhythmic transformation of melodic materials-- bird song, mostly-- to build a majestic sonic analogue to a pre-human world: a mountain, a stream falling through rock and stone.
The rhythmic transformations are, of course, the time-field of the work. The color-field arises when melodic materials are voiced and stacked vertically in strata: gliding strings, breathing woodwinds , chattering melodic percussion, dark-toned low horns. The piece is structured in what Messiaen called strophes: cells of musical events that at first seem to push and pull against each other. But as one listens to the unfolding music, the events begin to take on a sense of flow, that sense increasing until Messiaen has created for the listener the sight and presence of a massive mountain, of rippling, tumbling waters down that mountain's steep sides. It's nothing less than a monolithic construction in sound.
All falls away, though, for the infamous Epode: a thicket of transcribed bird song played only by the strings. Having just heard a real early- summer dawn chorus, I was prepared to be disappointed by Messiaen's transcription of nature. But I was surprised at how powerfully the composer captured-- even using only the relatively dry timbres of the strings-- the liquid chaos of the real thing.
The power of CHRONOCHROMIE lies for me in its sense of transformations, even trans-substantiations: bird song as light and color, vibration as stone and water. And above all there's the mystery of music vibrating its way into all the senses and tools of perceptions, becoming something of substance and mass in the world.

(A note: Messiaen's book, MUSIC AND COLOR (Conversations with Claude Samuel) is an invaluable guide to the composer's fascinating methods and ideas. )