Messiaen: Most Definitely to the Stars

United StatesUnited States Messiaen, Des canyons aux étoiles…: Juho Pohjonen (piano), Laura Weiner (French horn), Ian Sullivan (xylorimba), Jared Soldiviero (glockenspiel), Ensemble ACJW, Robert Spano (Conductor), Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, 19.3.2013 (SSM)

Messiaen, Bryce Canyon 1972 Photo Credit: Fondation Olivier Messaien
Messiaen, Bryce Canyon 1972 Photo Credit: Fondation Olivier Messiaen


Andras Shiff recently talked about his synesthetic experience of associating colors with certain keys: C major is white, G major is green and B minor is black. Messiaen goes a step further, claiming that he “paints colors for those who see none.” What he is really saying is that he translates the colors of the world into music which can be “heard” as colors. Messiaen’s mystical world mixes and matches senses, and his music reflects this process. “Music,” Messiaen states “is a perpetual dialogue between space and time, sound and color…a dialogue which ends in a unification.” Listeners must suspend their normal way of listening to allow his unique sound-world to take over their own senses.

What better place to inspire a composer like Messiaen than Bryce Canyon and its natural marvels. As Messiaen states, “I had to raise myself from the depths of the canyons to the beauty of the stars…I had only to keep going in the same direction to raise myself up to God.” One is so taken by the sheer beauty of Des canyons that when the composer scores a traditional grand swelling crescendo in the coda to “Bryce Canyon et les rochers rouge-orange” we forget how far outside the tonal world we have been.

An ornithologist, Messiaen was particularly interested in incorporating bird calls into his music, and four of the twelve movements of Des canyons feature bird songs. Here and in other works such as the Catalogued’oiseaux and Petites esquisses d’oiseauxhe often reserves the solo piano as the imitative instrument. But these are not simply imitations of bird songs. There is always something else going on, whether it’s a clash of orchestral sections or chords that as Messiaen states are needed after each note “to reproduce the timbre.”

Messiaen employed a variety of methods to convey the visual world, and he was not above using clichéd techniques to convincingly legitimize the movements’ titles. In the opening movement, “Le désert,” a wind machine produces the whooshing sounds associated with desert winds, along with his own invention, the geophone, whose pebbles shaken across a drum-like surface sound like shifting sands. Yet, if this were all, his composition would be nothing but a demonstration of what bad program music is. Beyond his imitation of natural sounds are the mystical connections that serve as the work’s integumentary system: bells lightly touched, riffs from the glockenspiel, tremolos from the strings, arpeggios from the piano. Everything glitters and shimmers. This primal “music of the spheres” slithers and squelches. It provides what a philosopher would call the ontological being of beings.

There is some spectacularly difficult music in this score, but the Ensemble ACJW overcame all of the technical issues. It was clear that every member of the orchestra, under the able hands of Robert Spano, was committed to the performance. Laura Weiner not only played her French horn exquisitely, she did so without a score in front of her. Elsewhere, I have spoken of my admiration for the pianist Juho Pohjonen and his performance here only adds to my list of encomiums. The percussionists take a major role, and Ian Sullivan and Jared Soldiviero, on the xylorimba (an extended xylophone) and the glockenspiel respectively, played with awesome virtuosity.

Stan Metzger