Can music be visual as well as aural? The Messiaen experience

Nothing annoys me more than musical or artistic snobbery. Those who oppose the the artist’s right to freedom of expression; well, not actually oppose but denigrate the form which an artist uses to portray what he/she see’s, hear’s, and feel’s. It seems that too many people have a comfort zone and when presented with the alternative to their idea of the norm they are immediately insecure and defensive.

Many great artists have lived in the face of public criticism, had scorn poured over their work and even inspired riots by their very uniqueness. Think Stravinsky back in 1913 when premiered his Rites of Spring – this jagged and edgy masterpiece was revolutionary – the  and choreography were considered barbaric and sexual and caused the audience to grow more uneasy by the minute during the first performance. A riot eventually ensued with the police being called in; this was in Paris of all places, a city where, even in 1913, the unconventional was accepted and alternative lifestyles the norm.

Olivier Messiaen was a composer of extraordinary music and is the focus of a Festival in his honour in London very soon. Messiaen, like Mozart almost 200 years earlier, did not just hear music in his mind, it was a physical experience to him. Messiaen saw music in forms and colours not with his eyes but in his head. He drew his influence from geological formations, from wildlife; each shade of colour from the strongest to the weakest representing the highest to the lowest octaves. Through such sensory perception he gave us such masterpieces as La Transfiguration and the lush Turangalila. It takes a certain musician to interpret these works and bring them to life; pianists such as the iconic Messiaen-ist Australian  pianist Micheal Keiran Harvey; and Mark Rowan-Hull, abstract artist and pianist, who will perform Messiaen’s works at the Festival: both have the ability to tap into the visions that Messiaen experienced as he composed his works and bring them to life for us. Rowan-Hull particularly will link the visual art of Messiaen with his music…what a treat for the senses. You know what? I wonder what would have been the result of a collaboration between Messiaen and Vincent van Gogh – both masters of the visual art of colour and form…we will never know, but I always wonder.

Brave, fantastic, daring, confronting and brilliant. Who needs a comfort zone when you have all this?

Mark Rowan-Hull. Gives sight to Messiaen’s sounds.

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8 Responses to “Can music be visual as well as aural? The Messiaen experience”

  1. Wendy – I came across this quote from George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda”
    by way of Alan Walker which I’ll throw in here for good measure:

    “A creative artist is no more a mere musician than a great statesman
    is a mere politician. We are not ingenius puppets who live in a box
    and look out on the world only gaping for amusement. We help to rule
    the nations and make the age as much as any other public men. We count
    ourselves on level benches with legislators. And a man who speaks
    effectively through music is compelled to something more difficult than
    parliamentary eloquence.”

    In the novel, these words are spoken by the musician Klesmer, whose character
    was apparently modelled on Franz Liszt.

  2. Exactly! I would say our sense of hearing is heightened. I sometimes
    work in a darkened room. Some of the most subtle harmonies to ever be heard
    in jazz come from George Shearing. Yes – both poetry and music have rhythm and
    it is the rhythm of the words that make for a song. In setting a poem to music,
    the poem becomes the teacher. Everything is in the words.Without the words there
    can be no song.They also have a texture. You
    are correct, absolutely! Poetry too can be music. I think poets do realize just
    how much they have in common with composers. I think it was Paul Valery who said
    setting poetry to music is like looking at a painting through a stained glass window.

  3. author says:

    ‘In Search of Genius’…sounds like food that my brain desperately needs. Thankyou for that recommendation Phillip, I will be scooting off to Amazon and Google as soon as I am finished here! Music and poetry; they certainly deserve a place beside each other. Consider those who do not have the gift of sight. Can one appreciate a Dali or Picasso without it?
    But poetry and music; all one needs is the ability to hear and visualise plus a ‘messenger’ to deliver such. Why do we close our eyes when listening to an exquisite passage of music? I know I do. Because without external stimuli the senses are heightened and are so much more receptive. Poetry…my own grandmother lost her sight in her final years and her greatest pleasure was to have me read her the poems of authors such as Auden, Pope and Blake. She always said that without her sight she was so much more receptive to what the poet was saying. And I understand that so clearly. Music, to her, became so much more a sensory thing after she became blind.
    I believe that a sixth sense is what she experienced.
    One method I always used when memorising a piece of music was to approach it as one would a poem…both have a type of rhythm, a start, a body and an ending. Cadences exist in poetry as well as music…just in a different form. I wonder if poets realise just how much they have in common with composers of music?

  4. “Objectives, hopes and dreams” – these are wonderful things.
    Way leads on to way. I agree with you and I applaud your
    passion to inspire thought and feeling.Have you read
    William Fifield’s book “In Search of Genius”? Essentially
    it’s transripts of discussion he had with artists on the act
    of creativity and that “sixth sense”. Those artists and writers
    interviewed include Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Jean Giono, Robert Graves,
    Dali, even Marcel Marceau. The book is enlightening and thought
    provoking and quite the contagion. Strangely, no musicians/composers
    feature in it. I have often wondered why when music, of all the
    arts is perhaps the most transient since it is an inhabitant of
    time. I have always felt it’s closest genre to be poetry, not painting.
    If you don’t know the book, search it out – it tells of the techniques at
    work in each, and the charms of the working….

  5. You’ve triggered the thoughts dear Wendy!
    Delacroix once said of progress that all
    things return to the natural point of
    departure before moving forward. I understand
    this. Everything is cyclical.I think too it is
    what T.S Elliot was saying in the above quote.
    I have been very very fortunate to have people
    far greater than myself believe in me. They have
    helped shape who I am. Creativity is such an
    abiding joy and the strengths to be gained from
    that “journey within” are manifold. I’m thoroughly
    blessed. Aside from the meaning of life being to seek
    life’s meaning, it is also to seek and know one’s
    self…”to arrive where we started and know the place for
    the first time. I believe in our young folk, and so it is
    I am back where I started – at a place where I “feel”
    belief again, as of yore, but where then the belief was
    in me, I now want to give back to others that very same
    belief that was extended me and to encourage young folk never to give up on
    their hopes and their dreams and always to believe that there
    is no such thing as failure. As you have said: “In that, ‘response’
    surely completes this concept. I am not sure if I am making sense
    here but what matters to me more than anything, more than the language
    of desire and discipline, is the desire and discipline itself. What
    matters to me is that striving forward to truthfully write one’s own
    chapter in this time called “life”, to leave a mrak in the world that
    is innately “you”. To believe…..

  6. author says:

    Phillip I too believe there is no such thing as failure. What others class as failure I class as ‘regret at not having tried’. ‘Failure’ is finality; there are many goals I have not yet achieved – this is not failure, but rather a process of ‘trying’ that will continue as long as I keep my eye on my objectives, hopes and dreams. What are we if we don’t have these? To me, Life is full of beginnings.

  7. It has been said that all things in life
    aspire to the condition of music. This is
    certainly true for musicians. If music is a
    manifestation of human spirit, and the spirit
    you evoke through music is true to yourself,
    I feel little esle matters. Truth exists for
    the wise and beauty for the susceptible heart
    and both, for me, reign supreme. The visual side
    of things in music exists moreso for me in the
    graphics of the score – its design. The greater journey happens within.
    I sometimes wonder if the world as it is today is a little too disensitized to really experience yesteryear’s “shock of the new”.
    What’s new? Certainly,it is not so much by our works
    themselves that we are identified, but by the
    comparative responses those works evoke in others
    even though things can be consciously willed, to
    transcend above the reality that is a nation,
    a culture, a religion or a life.When the intention
    and idea of a work is no longer there, when the
    shape of it fades, even into an undefined future,
    the cycle begins again:


    “We shall not cease from exploration
    and the end of all our exploring
    will be to arrive where we started
    and know the place for the first time.”

    Bless you Wendy!

  8. author says:

    Wow, your words need framing. A fantastic opinion expressing exactly how I feel as well Phillip. Just as in simple ‘conversation’ we remain open and accepting of another point of view, I feel that with regards to art and music we are also seeing the artist/performer/composer expressing their form of ‘opinion’ through their work.

    In that, ‘response’ surely completes this concept. And of course, response comes in all forms.

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