Olivier Messiaen

    Hommage a Messiaen


    Listening to Pierre Laurent Aimard’s piano interpretations on Homage a Messiaen is a perfect way to hear the aesthetic beginnings of today’s pop music. This album is a portrait of a giant among 2oth century composers, Olivier Messiaen, and it’s an important document for any lover of music, no matter the genre, because it shows the kind of music many people still want to make: different but simultaneously alluring.


    Messiaen’s work is anarchical, rhythmic, dissonant and strange, and these piano compositions provide a particular kind of X-ray photography of it. It is something of classical music truism that a composer shows the most of himself when he uses the piano.  These giant noise boxes, like the rectangular frame of painting, provide a productive limit for a composer’s ideas. In the set of compositions Aimard has chosen, we hear how Messiaen deals with the limitations and possibilities of the piano, but we also hear how larger interests of Messiaen’s — tone color, rhythm, bird-song — were worked out in his musical thoughts.


    What is most interesting about this work — which is brilliantly executed by Aimard — is that it presages the anarchical state of music today. Messiaen refused to reproduce the latest trends in the music of his time, namely 12-tone serialist music. Instead, he invented his own combination of invented scales, dissonant chords, transcribed bird-songs and rhythmic variation to create a cacophony that is never rebarbative but rather elegant and captivating.


    Today, most music makers find themselves in a chaotic sea of sound from which they can pick and choose ideas and styles at will. Listeners no longer care about the mainstream; it has been been replaced by a multiplicity of different musical communities. The freedom of this state of affairs allows people to cobble together their listening in any way they like: a rhythm here, a riff there, some timbres here, some words there. 


    Messiaen not only rocked — the violence of his rhythms can be mesmerizing, especially in the last two pieces on the record, "Isle of Fire I" and "Isle of Fire II" — but he also sucked in sounds all around him and translated them to the piano.  The Catalogue d’oiseaux (Catalog of Birds) is the best example, and two excerpts from it are collected on this record. In these, Messiaen quotes and combines different bird songs (found, recorded and transcribed by the composer himself), and the result is a weird kind of sampling. Messiaen places humans and birds in the same cycle of listening and mimicking. What is heard becomes what is created.


    This is the essence of musical listening, and is obviously still current (and not just through the art of sampling). I heard Ponytail this weekend and I noticed that the audience constantly repeated her non-word vocal sounds, not just in the midst of the songs but also between them. We had all become monkeys, and it felt great. Messiaen presaged this kind of exuberance in becoming animal-like. It’s all repetition with a difference.

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