The Melting Point of Birds

I have been internally screaming with excitement about tonight’s concert at Walt Disney Hall for just shy of a full calendar year. There’s only one piece on the program: Olivier Messiaen’s sprawling 1974 Des canyons aux étoiles... (From the canyons to the stars...)

Describing a work by Olivier Messiaen as “unusual” or “bizarre” is roughly like describing the Pope as “Catholic”, but even in Messiaen’s odd menagerie, Des canyons is something else. Despite his being French and not particularly nationalistic, Messiaen was commissioned to write the work to commemorate the United States bicentennial, a fact that I’ve never really seen explored or explained. Even tho the genocidal waves of American Manifest Destiny had yet to spread that far west in 1776, Messiaen took his inspiration from the weather-worn landscapes of southern Utah and the birds that are native to the region. (The inclusion of birds is par for the course for Messiaen — it’s much more unusual when his works don’t include transcriptions of their songs.) But, as the title implies, he also looked up, not metaphorically, but literally, to specific stars that are visible in the night sky.

The result is a 90-minute concerto for horn, piano, glockenspiel, and xylorimba that includes movement titles like “Interstellar call” and “The resurrected and the song of the star Aldebaran”. In addition to the solo percussionists, the piece calls for a bevy of ensemble players, covering everything from a wind machine (which gets several extended solos) to the geophone, an instrument of Messiaen’s own invention that calls for a drum filled with thousands of lead pellets to imitate the sound of dry shifting earth. Despite the size of the orchestra, there are numerous points over the course of the work where the music just . . . stops, and silence fills the air. At one point, some of the brass players remove the mouthpieces from their instruments and buzz on them as tho warming up backstage. I am not making any of this up.

If you are not already on the Messiaen bandwagon (or if your only exposure is the “Mode de valeurs et d’intensités” from a music history class*), I wouldn’t recommend Des canyons as your first exposure. For that, I’d probably point you to the last movement of the Turangalîla-Symphonie or possibly Dieu parmi nous if you’re fond of organs. (His chamber output is somewhat more limited, but you can never go wrong with the last movement of the Quatuor pour la fin du Temps, and his early theme and variations for violin and piano is a good way to ease into his style from more familiar waters.) In fact, I’m not entirely sure I would recommend Des canyons at all.

Hold up, I hear you say, run that by me again? Didn’t you route your cross-country road trip thru southern Utah specifically because of this piece? Haven’t you been posting about this concert in all caps on social media for almost an entire year? Well . . . yes. I did, and I have. Guilty as charged. I’m just not sure it’s actually a good piece of music, or even that I like it.

I should explain.

I haven’t written much about Messiaen’s music because I find it difficult to turn my feelings about it into words. There are many composers out there whose music I love desperately, whose music has been a profound comfort to me in dark hours, whose music is so connected to other things I care about that I could write treatise after treatise on why it’s so impeccably constructed. Get me going on the New Objectivist reaction to the First World War or the myth of Serialist supremacy in the 1970s, about the social and political implications of The Turn of The Screw or the glorious embrace of kitsch in The Man Who Hated Everything and I will quite happily yammer on until my voice is gone.

I can’t do that with Messiaen. I mean, yes, sure, I have a fair bit of factual knowledge about his musical techniques (rhythmic palindromes, unusual scales, birdsongs) and can lay out how some of his musical choices reflect his mystical Catholic worldview, but I fundamentally do not care about any of that. The music theory stuff is kinda neat in a “little-known and inconsequential trivia” kind of way, but I think Messiaen’s claims about it are frequently overwrought, and it doesn’t really apply to anything he didn’t write. And I’m not even slightly Catholic, so the ins and outs of his take on that perspective are of no concern to me. Useful, perhaps, as background information to understand his music, but, like the theoretical underpinnings, not very interesting beyond that.

Instead, my reactions to Messiaen’s music basically boil down to: “whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat”. I suppose I’m predisposed to like him because of the exuberant self-indulgence of his scores — his orchestral works generally call for massive forces with unusual instruments and fiendish parts, and they show no concern whatsoever for brevity or other constraints of reasonableness; there is no element of earthly compromise sullying their obsessive, otherworldly vision, and I appreciate such things tremendously — but the bottom line is that something in his writing short-circuits my brain. When I listen to Messiaen, I don’t think about rhythms or modes or Catholic theology. I don’t think at all. I just feel, deeply and viscerally, every fiber of my being reduced to an excited hum of desperate resonance and recognition, an inarticulate affirmation that radiates from the furthest reaches of my hindbrain, a lizard basking on a warm dry stone.

No other composer does this to me so consistently. With Messiaen, it’s virtually guaranteed. Des canyons is the exception. Des canyons is the one Messiaen piece I know that I fundamentally do not get. It is mysterious to me, and elusive. I keep coming back to it, circling it, looking for a way in, and it keeps eluding my grasp. I don’t know what to make of it.

So when I saw that the St Louis Symphony would be performing it tonight at Walt Disney Hall, I was excited. I was excited even tho it’s the work of Messiaen’s that I have the least interest in. I was excited because it’s the first time I’m hearing one of his orchestral works live, and things that fall flat on recordings sometimes surprise you in person; because even if nothing snaps into focus, it’s still Messiaen, and I am irrationally fond of his music; because it’s good to encounter the mysterious from time to time, even if no solutions present themselves.

This is an intimate, personal thing. I won’t review this concert, and I don’t expect to talk about it much, even with fellow modern music fans. I will go, and I will listen. Perhaps, something will become clear, or perhaps the monolithic blocks of sound will remain as inscrutable as the rocks that inspired them. But even if I emerge changed, made anew in some way by the sighs and songs, at the end I will still go home, to the same apartment, to solitude and sleep. As I go, tho, I will cast a glance skyward, straining against the lights of the city to behold, once more, the stars.

*I understand why music history classes include this work over any of his others both because of its historical significance and because it makes a nice bridge to Pierre Boulez and his associates (Boulez did study with Messiaen, after all), but I think it does him a disservice. This little piano work isn’t typical of Messiaen’s output, and it frustrates me when people come away with the impression that it is. If that’s all you know by him, I really do urge you to check out some of the other links in this post — there’s more to his music than being a stepping stone to integral serialism.