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Feasting on Infinity

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The subject of Olivier Messiaen’s music was time itself. No wonder his music appears like a thread through Time Unwrapped. Paul Griffiths explains.

Perhaps the most obvious route to the eternal is by way of long duration, which Messiaen first used in an organ piece he wrote when he was nineteen, Le Banquet céleste. The ‘celestial banquet’ is, of course, Holy Communion, which for Catholic believers offers not only participation in a two-millennia-old ritual but direct contact with the everlasting. Messiaen was a believer, but the experiences he was after – of eternity, of dazzling abundance, of union – may be regarded as more fundamental than the items of faith that gave him prodigious metaphors. Le Banquet céleste puts us in touch with infinity. Lasting for almost seven seconds, its opening chord ceases to be a rhythmic element and becomes a state, not something we listen to but something we enter. And states of this kind recur in Messiaen’s music, not least in the song for cello and piano in his Quatuor pour la fin du temps, marked ‘infinitely slow’.

Messiaen’s immense Treatise on Rhythm, on which he spent more than four decades, begins not with note-lengths, metre and pulse but with notions of passing time and eternity. Here he found his subject, and the subject, too, of his music, in which he sought to convey the feeling of infinite time, of eternity, within the limited span of a musical composition, and to alter in other ways how music can make us feel the flow of time.

At the same time, Le Banquet céleste reveals another of Messiaen’s roads to infinite time, or at least strange time, in how its harmony works, for harmony too, as much as rhythm, is a time-altering device. Western music of the great tradition had gained a sense of temporal flow, even of progress, from how major-minor harmony implied eventual resolution. That music, through three centuries, had convinced us that its temporality was our own – its speeds our own, its movement through time our own. Messiaen’s scales, however, crucially affect how this can work. One he favoured, of alternating semitones and whole tones, will not provide triads a fifth apart, and so there can be no tonicdominant harmony, no perfect cadence. Visions de l’Amen, his great work for two pianos, is all about saying ‘amen’, giving assent and therefore about cadencing, but cadencing within radiant continuity. The basic impulses that generate progressive flow are absent, and though Messiaen’s music can bound along, its racing belongs not to normal human experience but to the exceptional moment, entered in extremes of exhilaration – perhaps to a feeling of time cascading through us, rather than of us rushing at top tilt. Alternatively, the exceptional moment may be indeed a moment, an instant of jangling sound, of a brilliance that cannot be apprehended, that shoots us out of our normal awareness of temporal unfolding into the infinite. Stasis, modality and exception occur in almost any Messiaen composition, but he had other means to subvert, dislodge or astound our normal expectations of how music moves through time.

‘Messiaen’s music can produce a feeling of time cascading through us, rather than of us rushing at top tilt’

One technique is the jump-cut, inherited from Stravinsky, perhaps ultimately from film, the sudden change in tempo, texture, pattern of beats, so that we are taken from one time-frame into another, and made aware that we are in a larger time-frame. Where the cut is to an exact repeat, the effect is of being taken back to an earlier point, the arrow of time zigzagging. Occasionally the repeat is played in reverse, giving the extraordinary sensation of moving backwards. Messiaen joyously abandons evenness of flow, a requisite of western music, and will do so on the smallest scale, with irregular rhythms and rapidly changing time signatures. Partly in order to assure himself of irregularity, Messiaen developed a range of systematic procedures with regard to rhythm. One was to set up different rates of repetition in different parts, as notably in ‘Liturgie de cristal’, the first movement of the Quatuor pour la fin du temps. Governed by unalterable numbers – the lengths of the units, the speeds at which they rotate – the music achieves a kind of objective time, which we observe rather than experience. In other works this objectivity of time is reached by applying quasi-serial transformations to sequences of twelve durations, from demi-semiquaver to dotted minim. Whatever kind of unit is constructed, the impression may be of a steady state, not changeless, but undergoing changes according to mechanisms that remain hermetic – mechanisms that, too, may partake of the infinite. That of ‘Liturgie de cristal’, for instance, would take two hours to complete before repeating itself; the actual movement offers hardly more than a snapshot of this potential process.

Messiaen’s use of birdsong may be said to do this, too. Though it is clear that he heard birdsong in his own way, he honoured its nature as undirected and repetitive, non-progressive; indeed, those qualities were essential to its appeal to him, and guided him in his choice of other material for his non-progressive music. Besides, having been sounding on earth for tens of millions of years before there ever was human music, the songs of birds offered yet another glimpse of eternity.

Paul Griffiths gives the keynote lecture for Time Unwrapped, Sounding Time, on 6 Jan at 6.15pm

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