Thursday, 18 December 2008

From dental pain to Messiaen

It has been an extremely busy week so far.

Little time to be. Apart from longer hours at work during this busy Yuletide, I have had to subject myself to the personal horror of the dentist - be cursed the modern diet and my poor dental genetics. I feel like I'm fighting a losing war when trying to keep all my teeth healthy, despite endless brushing, mouthwashes, etc, etc.

Such is the mundane sphere of life.

Still, last night was an experience to remember. For I had the inestimable enlightenment served by seeing a performance of a truly rarefied order of mastery. I saw Steven Osborne perform Messiaen's Vingt Regards sur l'enfant Jésus here at the Sage in Gateshead.

Ostensibly this is a deeply religious, Christian work. One could easily form pre-conceptions about its content from the subtitle, which is on the theme of the Nativity.

But lest anyone assume that what we have here is some syrupy, meek, parochial and insipid devotional to the Christian faith, they couldn't be more wrong. And most importantly, we have an example of devout religiosity ultimately serving Art as the highest exemplar; for what we have here is music of utterly exceptional quality. Through Osborne, this music is served by an interpretor of such ability that he possesses the necessary capacity to render this music - for this is very difficult, very obtuse and highly inaccessible music.

If anything, this music should come with a warning. For, it may only apparently be a work for a solo piano, but it is surely some of the most violent, extreme and demanding music ever created. I can state this with confidence from the perspective of someone whose musical tastes could be described as extremely eclectic, unconventional, and in many cases highly extreme in comparison to cultural norms.

When I say demanding, I should clarify that it is in equal measure for the listener as well as the performer. First off, we have a continuous piece of music (in twenty sections) for solo instrument that lasts in excess of two hours - and the concert, quite appropriately given the musical content, was performed without an interval or break. Next, we have the extraordinarily chromatic and polytonal musical tonality - no adherence to happy major keys or simple chord structures here. Into the mix we have an astonishing dynamic range, from the gentlest notes barely disturbing the substrate of silence... to a colossal cacophony, a veritable battery; a grand piano assault. Finally, we have the immensely complex structure to the piece; tied together throughout with the original theme introduced in the very first part.

It is often said that the silence, the space between notes, is absolutely as important as the notes themselves; nowhere is this more true than here. This work positively dances around silence; before exploding out as if in some Old Testament Divine judgement from the Almighty, to rip into the backdrop of silence and populate it with multifaceted, ambiguous forms. In that respect it reflects life.

It is a work that is sublime and fantastic in the most absolutely literal sense of those two words. For me, the real essence of the work distils down to the following conflict: the tension between the transcendent and the immanent.

I am currently reading de Benoist's On Being A Pagan, which is a book written by an author of great learning and insight. Interestingly, the process of reading this book deepened my experience of the concert last night.

For, in dialectically contrasting the traditional Pagan/polytheist teleology with its usurpation by the [currently] prevailing Judeo-Christian/monotheist world view, I was drawn into recognising features in the music that correspond to the philosophical and theological precepts discussed in this book. Specifically, the Otherness, the great, unapproachable Other that characterises the relationship man has towards God in the Judeo-Christian world view. Judaism's Yahweh is distinctly not of this world; he is the creator, or more impotantly, the ultimate authority, the Law and the Word of this world. For all the ancient Pagan religions, the gods are distinctly a part of this world; they interact through this world; they are idealised Man; they are not some impossible Other: permanently [virtually] unreachable, intractable, and entirely transcendent not-being.

Anyway, the reason I draw inferences to this point is that Messaien's music, and especially this piece, seems to struggle with the reconciliation of this primordial alienation with the equally primordial being as a being in this world. These are themes that Nietzsche, and more recently, Heidegger elaborate on. For, in the final analysis, as a human being, one must partake of what is humanising.

The work occupies a realm of tremendous spiritual depth but also one that is almost cold, existentially terrifying, and somewhat detached from this world. Chilling sections are contrasted by violent episodes that almost suggest a Divine authority from above crushing you from without; or, conversely, with the inner struggle of man to acheive supremacy over himself, to reintegrate into a whole what for most of the time feels like a mysterious and discontiguous assemblage of unknowables. This is definitely an innately human quality that anyone who reflects on the human conundrum must experience at least some of the time.

The work gradually metamorphises and the grand reconciliation begins to seem possible; through intensity the two elements - id and ego; unconciousness and conciousness; intuition and intellect; transcendent and immanent; spirit and form - seem to achieve the necessary higher synthesis and coalesce into a recognisable whole.

Messaien's approaches the line from the side of the Other and gradually reaches down to the ground of common experience by always, musically looking up, to the beyond. His is the calculus of finding the particular from the universal.

It only takes a listener willing to open themselves up to the experience to recognise the great uncommunicable, spiritual unity visible in this work - regardless of their personal religious and spiritual views. This is music that truly does transcend.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jesus was pagan.... ;)