Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Messiaen and Ancient Science Fiction

After that last post, I received the following email:
"But there was one modern composer for whom the natural world never lost its innocence."

No matter how original a composer Messiaen may have been, his attitude to music, as his pupil Pierre Boulez pointed out, was quite apart from the radical modernists in Vienna and elsewhere. He always retained a deep attachment to certain aspects of tradition, of which certain references to nature in his work were a symptom. It may be telling that he largely abandons this imagery during what Boulez calls his 'utopian years', after the encounter with Darmstadt. However, I am not sure if it is this traditionalism that is at work in his use of birdsong. For Messiaen sees birds less as a natural force than as fellow composers. Even more than that, birds are for Messiaen, as Deleuze and Guattari might say, a line of flight, not drawing him down and attaching him to the earth, but soaring up and away from it. His music contains a becoming-animal, in the process of which the birds themselves become something else too. Birds for Messiaen are like the Tuareg for Delia Derbyshire, rockets for Joe Meek: a means of escape from the earth and the ground. In one of the clips above he even describes a certain bird's noises as "slow, distant, lunar sounds. Like he's from another planet." 

At a recent lecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, Catherine Hezser developed a theory of ancient science fiction. Based on Biblical, rabbinical, and other Graeco-Roman texts concerning people being spoken to by extra-terrestrial visitors and lifted up above the earth, such imaginary voyages, Hezser claimed, are invariably connected with some kind of vision of Utopia. Like Alexander, Messiaen has been lifted to the Heavens by a flock of birds, in order that he may look down upon the earth and see it all as one, synthesizing all of its diverse sounds into his own unique musical language.