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Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
La Liturgie de Cristal

A film by Olivier Mille (director)
filmed 2001 with extra footage 2007.
Picture Format: 4:3
Sound Format: Dolby Digital Stereo
Languages: French, English and German


Olivier Messiaen is the next composer to be feted, in a major retrospective at Londonís South Bank from February to December 2008. This film, complied from archive material dating back 50 years, and more recent interviews with people who knew him well, comes at an opportune time. Despite his importance in the European music scene, Messiaen is under-appreciated in the UK.

He was a man so full of paradoxes that no film can cover all aspects of his work in full, but this film is a good, reliable introduction. Itís a good medium through which to approach the composer, who was so fond of images and allusion. Film works the same way, for it, too, uses oblique images to express what cannot be explained in words.

The film starts with a panoramic sweep over the canyons of Utah, which so inspired the composer. We see the ancient rock formations, and the high peaks. The camera moves, showing the interplay between light and shade, cold and warm colours, jagged shapes and the vast, smooth expanse of the sky. The music playing is "From the Canyons to the Stars". For Messiaen, open wildernesses like these were cathedrals, cathedrals of nature which released the deep, spiritual response that found expression in his music.

"Man hasnít been on this earth that long, "says Messiaen, "Before us there were prehistoric monsters, but in between there were birds". "Birds invented the chromatic and diatonic scales, quarter tones, sixth tones, they even invented group improvisation." We see the composer in his "native habitat" in the words, listening to birdsong. We hear what he hears, and then get to see how heís notated it on music paper Ė without bar lines, and in distinctive squiggles. Messiaen was a formidably well trained ornithologist, who studied birds like musicians study instruments. Moreover, he was alive to the extreme individuality of each bird, and heard each one even within the cacophony of a dawn chorus. This intent listening forms the basis of so much that is characteristic in his music. Detail matters. Densities are built up from small, precise particles. Yet Messiaen isnít merely transposing bird song, but recreating its spirit in terms of orchestral music. "A landscape painter doesnít photograph a landscape", he explains, "he renders the effect of a landscape". We can hear this in footage where Boulez and Aimard, two of the composerís closest associates, play several pieces.

Each note is lucidly clear, yet vivid. Later thereís a shot taken from a birdís eye view, way up above the piano. Aimardís fingers move across the keyboard, with the jerky but natural movements of a bird. Itís almost certainly not conscious, as Aimard is playing intuitively, not literally. Later we see a young Nagano conduct a rehearsal in the composerís presence. Much has been made of how Messiaen influenced others like Boulez, Cage, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Benjamin, and Murail, but less of his more oblique influence on performance practice. These films clearly demonstrate how much modern conducting has evolved out of Messiaenís ideas. His reasons for detailed, lucid precision become clear. This is not soulless, cerebral music-making at all. On the contrary, itís intensely organic, and clarity of detail, in music as in nature, is fundamental.

Ultimately, Messiaenís fascination with birds and nature is just a facet of his much further-reaching fascination with spiritual depth. He was interested in Japan, not just because of its exotic sound-worlds, but because the Japanese had "an innate sense of the sacred". Like the Japanese, Messiaen believed in communion with nature. He was an extremely devoted Catholic, for whom all things represented Godís work. If the film doesnít go into much detail about his use of gamelan, ondes martenot and "alien" sounds, itís compensated by some very good footage of the composer humbly entering the organ loft, and climbing the narrow stairs to play, alone, for the glory of God and what he so firmly believed in. We hear organ notes held in almost improbably long resonance, while the camera pans from the keys upwards to the gigantic pipes and then skyward, through the light shining in from the stained glass window. The sound seems to exist beyond human and mechanical agency.

The film tries bravely to assess Messiaenís ideas on colour and sound.. "Hereís what I see, literally" he says of a score, "Blue-violet rock strewn over with little grey cubes. Cobalt blue, Prussian blue, with purple-crimson reflections, black, white and silver stars Ö but these are colours of music. If you tried to reproduce them on canvas they might be horrible, because theyíre not that kind of colours, theyíre musicianís colours not painterís colours". Since all people perceive colour differently, this is still one of the trickier aspects of Messiaenís ideas to come to terms with. Because thereís so much archive material available, itís used in the film, but Iím not sure how it would be possible to explain the concepts except by suggesting that they reaffirm the composerís essentially intuitive, impressionistic approach.

This film is valuable for its archive footage of live performance. Theyíve been edited by someone who understands the critical points in the music and what the performers are doing. The interviews are also very useful, and the landscape photography is dramatic. In a short film like this, you canít really expect too much detail without losing the bigger picture, and there are constraints based on whatís available in the archive. But thatís fair enough, as thereís so much to listen to and learn that this serves as a taster to spur you on. For me, itís wonderful just to see the footage of Messiaen and Loriod in the woods, tracking down birds, and listening. Later, Messiaen is at home on the terrace giving an interview, while the birds in his garden join in, interrupting most appositely.

Anne Ozorio


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