Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me
After Bartók, Olivier Messiaen was the first composer I fell completely in love with. One of my school music teachers was an organist and, such is the way with many organists, was huge fan himself. He joined my school only a few months before Messiaen died in April 1992. One day he brought in a copy of 'Dieu parmi nous' from La nativité du Seigneur which he hammered through on a classroom piano, with a friend and I taking turns trying to keep up with the pedal part. At first sight of pages thick with noteheads and accidentals, 11/13 time signatures, and harmonies so spectacular they could crick your neck I fell in love – not just with Messiaen, but with contemporary music in general. I later realised of course that a piece written in 1935 hardly counted as 'contemporary', but there was no turning back. This, I decided, was really it, and nothing has changed my mind in 12 years since. It is a great regret that I never knew his music while he was alive – I would have travelled a long way to see Messiaen in person, and as far as necessary to hear him play his beloved organ at La Trinité in Paris.
So Messiaen had to be in here somewhere. Although he wrote much larger and more well-known works after 1960 than Sept haïkaï (recording) (Des canyons aux étoiles, Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, Eclairs sur l'Au-delà …), this piece clinched a place for personal reasons. I no longer remember why I settled on it at the time, but Sept haïkaï was the subject of one of the first essays I wrote as an undergraduate, and the first of those on contemporary music. It thus kick-started what has become a career. At the time I wound myself into philosophical knots trying to establish a 'pure' motivation for Messiaen's allusions to Japan and Japanese music in the piece (the conventional explanation, that he'd just returned from a concert tour to Japan, and was simply inspired by what he'd seen and heard, didn't wash with my ultra-rational undergraduate sensibilities). What has stayed with me however is the alternative sense of time and pulse embodied in both Messiaen's music, and the Japanese gagaku music that plays a prominent role in Sept haïkaï.
This was helped in no small part by Paul Griffiths' outstanding book Olivier Messiaen and the Music of Time. Griffiths argues that Messiaen's devout Catholicism – an influence on almost all of his music – drew him to attempt a representation of the eternal and the divine in his music. The nearest approximation of the eternal that our earthly minds can imagine is of a present that never stops, an unchanging loop endlessly repeating. Eternal time must have no sense of movement or direction; this would imply movement from or to, a beginning or an end, and eternity is by definition boundless. Johnson argues that Messiaen's musical language methodically expunges all those elements such as teleogical form, metrical rhythm, functional harmony, diatonic melody and so on that give more conventional music its drive and dynamism. Most significantly of these, I think, was the replacement of metrical rhythm (ie consistent bars and time signatures, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 …) with an 'additive' rhythmic scheme that grows from multiplications of a single pulse unit. So, in theory, Messiaen's rhythms are made from one – endless, unchanging – pulse (1, 1, 1, 1 …). Think of a waltz, and how the second and third beats of the bar can't help but push you forward onto the first beat of the next bar. In microcosm, that is the changing, moving drive that is contained within the language of traditional classical music. Messiaen's alternative language replaces this with an analogy of an eternally cyclic present. It is, in short, a complete reconception of time's passing, turned into music.
The seven 'haikus' of the piece are arranged symetrically: 1 and 7 are an introduction and coda; 2, 3, 5 and 6 are sound pictures of places Messiaen had visited in Japan: Nara park, Yamanaka, Miyajima and Karuizawa. The central movement is the most striking. It is simply titled 'Gagaku' and is clearly influenced by the gagaku court music he had heard on his tour. Indeed it is almost unique in Messiaen's output for being so closely related to its model (his frequent use of birdsong excepted), and it is clear that this ancient court music greatly struck him. Gagaku music itself is built from loops and cycles, giant, slow drumbeats that act as the scaffolding for long wind melodies. Like Messiaen's music, it is written with a concept of musical time totally foreign to the progressive teleology of Western forms, a pattern of independence and coincidence, as parts move according to their own rhythmic cycles, meeting at regular climaxes every 16 or 32 beats. If Messiaen's rhythmic patterns are built from single pulse units, gagaku is those pulses writ large. The aesthetic is the same, even if the focal length is different, and this was the attraction.
Much of Messiaen's reputation is built on works of grand statement, be they a series of meditations for organ on Christ's birth (La nativité), a contemplation of heaven written inside a POW camp (Quatour pour la fin du temps), or a technicolor divine-erotic extravaganza (Turangalîla-Symphonie), so works like Sept haïkaï, which turn his formidably complete musical technique to such a naïve, picture-postcard subject are unusual. While I would naturally recommend any Messiaen to anyone, Sept haïkaï is maybe the one to impress people with at dinner parties – a small, personal sketch from the master of overstatement.