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Monday, March 15, 2010

The Music of Olivier Messiaen

In the past month the music of French composer, Olivier Messiaen has come into my life twice, and both experiences have been ekphrastic, which is to say that other artistic mediums were involved with the music and served to enlighten it.
In February I went to Minneapolis to see the work of my friend, choreographer Julie Mueller, who created a cycle of dances for Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time in a collaborative work with the Bakken Trio.
Julie's dance training is rooted in the German Expressionist movement that pioneer modern dancer Mary Wigman implemented in her school in Germany in the 1920s. Wigman was hailed for bringing the deepest existential experiences to the stage, and it was in this spirit that Julie's choreography imbued Messiaen's music with a visible incarnation. The dancers performed both masked and unmasked--a nod perhaps to Wigman's propensity for masks with non-Western/tribal motifs, and to Julie's own interest in Japanese Butoh. At times, by the use of scarves, the dancers took on the look of  winged creatures in keeping with Messiaen's love of birds and his belief in Angels. There were swords, too and in a dramatic dance solo, Messiaen's inspiration for his composition lived and breathed on stage. "There shall be time no longer," says the Angel of the Apocalypse in the Revelations quote that Messiaen employs on the front page of his composition.
Yesterday I attended a performance in a series entitled Music & Mansions put on by the Pasadena Conservatory of Music. Messiaen's Vingt Regars Sur L'Enfant-Jesus was performed by the amazing pianist, Mark Robson, in the midst of an art exhibit titled, Secular Icons, painted by the symbolic expressionist painter, Edward Beckett. In addition to the art surrounding the audience and the pianist, there was a program insert with twenty "automatic drawings"--one for each of Messiaen's "Regards."
And like the performance of Quartet for the End of Time, there were copious program notes of Messiaen's own making that set the mind off on its own journey.
I don't really care for surround sound or 3-D. But I am craving more ekphrasis and more Messiaen.
Messiaen served as the church organist at La TrinitĂ© in Paris. It's on my list for the next visit. Maybe there will be a concert, and maybe there will be dancers or painters, too.

photo credit: NY Times


  1. There is something magical about the marriage of music to any other art form. A painting may bring memories when revisited but if we hear some particular piece of music while looking at it, the music will bring instant recall not only of the painting but where were we when one was joined by the other in that osmotic relationship.

    While I truly prefer silence when reading, I always welcome the unexpected joy of watching one art form envelop the other and melting the boundaries to become a single experience.

  2. OH! I just read this! Very sweet, we can watch the DVD this weekend!



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