Messiaen’s fascination with birdsong went well beyond simple admiration and imitation. “It’s probable that in the artistic hierarchy,” he said, “birds are the greatest musicians existing on our planet.” He seemed to identify with them on a spiritual level, to see their songs as the highest sonic expression of God’s creation.
And his research went beyond simple transcription. He noted the differences between species that were seemingly born with an innate song and those that had to learn from their parents, and species that would recreate essentially the same song day to day as opposed to those that were constantly changing aspects of their songs.
Finally, Messiaen took the task of incorporating birdsong into his compositions deeply seriously:
Once the birdsong is written down, the real work begins; that is, it has to be worked into a piece, whether it be for piano, for orchestra, or whatever other instruments. To begin with, one has to have a great number of sketches in order to arrive at an ideal bird, for example, the song thrush – it’s one of the loveliest birds and songsters in all of Europe. It has a special style, which is distinguished in a somewhat magical way by tripartite repetitions: it sings its stanza three times in a row, and every time, the one differs from the others through a marked rhythm and a “timbre melody.” That means that the tone color of each note is different and the rhythms vary with each stanza. The stanza is repeated three times; on the next day there’ll be different stanzas, which will also be repeated three times, but then they’re gone once and for all, one’ll never hear them again. Therefore, one has to put together an ideal song thrush, after having heard several hundreds of them, and to know all the possibilities of stanza creation, in order to condense these to a normal solo occupying the correspondingly short space of time. Following the difficulty of rhythmic and melodic notation, which I try to execute as exactly as possible, comes a further difficulty: the reproduction of timbres. These tone colors are so extraordinary that no musical instrument can reproduce them. One needs combinations of instruments, and still more combinations or complexes of pitches. If I want to reproduce on the piano, let’s say, the song of a garden warbler or a song thrush or a nightingale, I need to find a complex of pitches for every melody note. Each note of the melody is furnished with a chord that is intended to reproduce the timbre of that note. If we have an orchestra, not only is each note provided with a chord, but every chord also has a particular function within the orchestral sound, and even the change from one instrument to another helps toward reproducing the required timbre – as you see, it’s very complicated work.
Through the magic of YouTube, here are two more videos of Monsieur Messiaen. The first shows him again in a classroom setting, explaining the derivations of aspects of some of his music. The second shows him out in the field, listening, transcribing and commenting on what he hears. Enjoy!
Gabriel Langfur in
October 1, 2009
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Olivier Messiaen was such a unique figure in music history, with so much of his inspiration clearly coming from extra-musical sources, that it is tempting to consider him outside of tradition. But this is far from the truth, really. He was profoundly influenced by two other composers on this program: Mozart, whom he saw as a kindred spirit on the subject of rhythm, and Debussy, his countryman, who freed rich, densely chromatic harmony from its functional purposes, showing that carefully chosen dissonances could be evocative of color and emotion just by their sheer sound.
This marvelous YouTube video captures Messiaen’s enthusiasm for Debussy in the setting of a classroom. What a marvelous teacher! I wish I had an analysis class like this when I was in school!
Also, take a look at his clothes – what a fantastic sense of style!
Gabriel Langfur in
September 23, 2009
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The musical community has suffered a great loss with the passing of composer Leon Kirchner yesterday morning. There is a beautiful article on his life in today’s New York Times. He was, without a doubt, one of the greats.
Chameleon will be performing his Piano Trio II on March 27.
Deb Boldin in
September 18, 2009
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The more I researched Toru Takemitsu the more fascinated I became. I think that the more time passes the more he will be considered one of the truly great and innovative composers of the twentieth century. He didn’t hear Western music at all until he was at least 14 years old, and then began studying in earnest by examining the works of Debussy and Messiaen. Imagine…coming from a culture where Western influence was outlawed for the the first 16 years of your life and then picking up our musical tradition midstream, with essentially no context in which to place it. Furthermore, he rejected his own native musical culture until he was about 30, by hearing it anew through the ears of an American – John Cage to boot. And only then incorporating it into his own compositions.
Some of Takemitsu’s earliest compositional activity was in the Jikken Kobo (“experimental workshop”), a group dedicated to multi-media arts he formed with several friends. He had none of the American prejudice against music for films and composed nearly 100 film scores, many for the revolutionary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. The following videos from YouTube give a fascinating insight into his working methods and thoughts about his own music. My favorite quote:
“I’ve never much liked the trumpet and kettledrums. Timpani are such important instruments in Western music. They provide the foundation for all the other sounds above. But my music is bottomless, you see. I have only the top. That’s because I’m Japanese.”
This Saturday, March 28, Chameleon will be performing Hann Eisler’s Fourteen Ways to Describe Rain for flute, clarinet, string trio, and piano.
Eisler’s story is fascinating. A wounded veteran of the First World War, Eisler studied with Schoenberg and Webern between 1919 and 1923 in Vienna. A lifelong communist and close friend and collaborator of Bertolt Brecht, Eisler was forced into exile in the United States by Hitler’s Third Reich. He was subsequently deported as one the first victims of the Hollywood blacklist and lived out his life in East Germany. Eisler’s music ranges from strictly avant-garde 12-tone technique to clearly diatonic text-setting that perfectly served the Socialist messages of his vocal works. Fourteen Ways to Describe Rain is a highly expressive example of the former and one of his rare pieces of chamber music, composed in 1941 in the United States to accompany Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens’ 1929 experimental film Regen. It was dedicated to his teacher Arnold Schoenberg, premiered at his 70th birthday celebration and labeled Opus 70 despite the fact that Eisler had long since stopped numbering his works.
When I researched Judith Weir for the notes on the February 2009 concerts, I was intrigued to read about the inspiration she draws from folk music generally, and the music of her own Scottish heritage in particular. Bio information about her discusses her use of forms inspired by Piobaireachd, or Pibroch.
Pibroch is the classical music of the Scottish Highland Bagpipe, a tradition centuries old that was the profession of generations of families. initially passed down in an oral tradition, a system of notation was devised and the tunes written down. Structurally, Pibroch is theme and variations, although the theme is essentially never presented without embellishment, and the variations generally follow a fairly strict structure.
I won’t go into more detail here, in large part because the more I research Pibroch the more confused I get! But I did find some interesting recorded excerpts (and thoroughly obscuring “explanations” that appear to have nothing to do with the visual examples!) here.
Having listened to these examples and listened to and looked at the score of Judith Weir’s Airs from Another Planet, it seems to me that the most direct link in this particular piece is in the last movement, Bagpipe Air, with Drones. And it’s clearly not the sound of the pipes that she reproduces in this movement but a rhythmic character unique to Pibroch, a sense that there is a strict rhythmic undercurrent that is carefully and deliberately paced – but that continually surprises and keeps the listener guessing and resists traditional musical notation.
Scottish Country Dancing
The first and third movements of Airs from Another Planet are directly related to the tradition of Scottish Country Dancing, social dancing usually done in mixed-gender groups. The steps are quite stylized and often complex, and each dance, of course, has a specific musical form associated with it. The Strathspey is a slow and stately dance either preceded or followed by a Reel, a fast dance that either involves faster steps in place or “traveling” steps with the group moving in a circle. Many Jigs – another fast dance – are in 9/8 time, as Judith Weir’s is…basically.
As with Pibroch, the more I read about Scottish Country Dancing, the more I realize exactly how little I understand! Suffice it to say that Judith Weir is drawing from a deep well, and she acheives an amazing balance in her music: familiarity of basic musical elements, but through a strongly individual prism that keeps it from ever sounding contrived or derivative.
Gabriel Langfur in
February 12, 2009
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It’s only Tuesday and there are already two composer milestones for which we must pause:
Felix Mendelssohn turns 200 today, February 3. To celebrate, we recommend spending some time with his under performed Piano Quartets. Our favorite is Op. 3 No. 3 in b minor, completed just before his 16th birthday. There is an exciting recording available on Naxos.
On Sunday, composer and major figure in American music, Lukas Foss, passed away at the age of 86. Allan Kozinn wrote a beautiful obituary for the New York Times. To us, his music represents the perfect blending of tradition and innovation, intellect and expression. In fact, this blogger came of musical age during Mr. Foss’ tenure as Music Director of the Milwaukee Symphony, her home town, and can barely remember a time when his music was not part of her life. He will not soon be forgotten!
Deb Boldin in
February 3, 2009
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