Make Better Music 47: Messiaen and the Blues

make better music. Trebuchet magazine
make better music. Trebuchet magazine

I was just getting good at playing blues guitar when I hit my teens.

I had grown up on blues and classic rock and was starting to reach out to prog and psychedelia for something more. The tastes were maturing, and my musicianship was starting to build, and I was looking for the next thing to get into. More exciting things, unexpected things. Jamming to “Key to the Highway” was getting old.

Being smart does not mean losing your soul.

Fate decided to intervene in a peculiar way. I was doing music lessons at school, and at that age these classes involved learning the basic theory stuff, along with doing some really old fashioned “exercises”. I’d already taught myself to read music, and although I wasn’t that good at it yet, the lessons were designed for kids of all abilities, so I got to coast through these bits.

The exercise usually involved singing children’s songs, with piano accompaniment. You can imagine how well that goes down with a room full of teenagers just starting to get into the joys of musical rebellion.

Anyhow, fate caught me off guard when the teacher announced that we were going to listen to a piece called “Liturgie De Crystal” by Olivier Messiaen, and pressed play on a cassette:

For me it was like being beamed down into an alien planet, checking out the landscape, saying “I like it – I’m gonna live here” and taking my space helmet off.

It ticked every box for me. It sounded how emotion feels, indescribable, instinctive and mysterious. There is complexity and crushingly harsh harmony, but it somehow manages to float along effortlessly. Turns out the whole quartet, weighing in at 45min or so, sounds not unlike this, and works the same way.

Suddenly a new array of possibilities was opened up to me – rock and blues can be great, but this affected me a different way. This was a new world.

Of course, later on I learned a lot more about how it was written, and what was happening to the composer at the time, and this made me warm to him all the more.

It was written in extraordinary circumstances, and it’s a miracle that it was written at all. The composer had been conscripted during the Second World War and was eventually captured and taken to a prisoner of war camp.

The story has passed into legend and is recounted here.

This piece made me realise that complex communication does not have to be hard to understand, that complex music while difficult to write can be simple to hear (and vice versa) and crucially and hardest to understand or explain – music does not have to be what it is. It can be more than the sum of the parts. Music can be intellectual without being snooty or contrived.

Being smart does not mean losing your soul.

This piece can, to a certain extent, be explained. There are some strict rules being followed. The piano and cello parts use a semi-mathematical processes known as isorhythm to organise their notes, and the birdsong was not “composed” as such… and yet many people find this piece emotionally charged and strikingly beautiful, myself included.

Knowing, or not knowing how it was made does not affect the end result.

You might wonder what the composer is there for if mathematical processes are creating the music. Who created the processes? Who put them in motion and directed them? Who decided which processes to combine? Who worked on this problem and then presented a finished result? Who refused to give up until it all came together?

Try doing it yourself and seeing what result you get. You might just get a quick glimpse of what it takes to be a musical genius.


About Dave.
David Learnt composition (harmony, counterpoint and orchestration) to degree level through studying Schoenbergs Fundamentals of Musical Composition. He is a founder member of Avant Pop duo Cnut, and orchestral doombience outfit Regolith.

Make Better Music is updated every Tuesday. For previous articles search for ‘Dave Graham’
Image: Francesco Marino / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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About Dave Graham 70 Articles
David Learnt composition (harmony, counterpoint and orchestration) to degree level through studying Schoenbergs Fundamentals of Musical Composition, the classic text on twentieth century harmony by Vincent Persichetti, Henry Mancini's Sounds and Scores, Rimsky-Korsakov's excellent books on orchestration as well as studying any scores that intrigued me. He is a founder member of two bands, avant pop duo Cnut, and orchestral doombience outfit Regolith, and have performed across Europe with them.

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