A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Quartet For The End Of Time
Saturday, November 29, 2008

I give bird songs to those who dwell in cities and have never heard them, make rhythms for those who know only military marches or jazz, and paint colors for those who see none.

No one should be allowed to make music as if he were made of wood. One must reproduce the musical text exactly, but not play like a stone.

Music is a language that can reach the secret parts of existence. It is an abstract language which addresses the subconscious more than the conscious.

Olivier Messiaen.

Yesterday afternoon I listened to the rehearsal of a work by French composer Olivier Messiaen whose title is the most beautiful sounding Quartet for the End of Time. It is part of a program by the Turning Point Ensemble in a concert that was held yesterday (Friday) and again tomorrow (Sunday) at 8pm at Ryerson United Church, 2195 W. 45 Avenue. Messiaen’s quartet will be played by cellist Peggy Lee, pianist Jane Hayes, clarinetist François Houle and violinist Marc Destrubé (same order in photograph here).

I plan to attend the concert for several reasons.

In 1964 I was a 22-year-old young man who thought he had avant-garde tastes. This meant I went to little Mexican baroque churches to listen to music that had been “discovered” at the time. This was baroque music by such composers as Frescobaldi, Torelli, Vivaldi and Corelli. I looked down on my mother’s fondness for "the musical genius of all time" (as she called
Bach) because his name did not end in i! My idiocy accompanied me to a concert at the University of Mexico where my friend Robert Hijar told me we would have the pleasure of listening to works by composer Olivier Messiaen. I listened to a soprano squawk accompanied by music I could hardly hum and I told Robert I hated it. And that was the last time I exposed myself (knowingly) to Messiaen until last night. After the rehearsal sample I am curious and hooked, too.

A little treasure in my library is A Guide to Orchestral Music - The Handbook for Non-Musicians by Ethan Mordden (Oxford University Press 1980). Before going over to Ryerson to snap the picture of the quartet yesterday I read:

Birds are a major inspiration to Messiaen; his attempts to recreate and even analyze their music in his compositions form his most identifying feature. “For me,” says Messiaen, “birds are the greatest of artists.” He has traveled the world noting their cries, he taking down their dictation on music paper, his wife (the pianist Yvonne Loriod) capturing the sound on tape.

When I listened to the third movement (8 in all) Abyss of the birds (I had no program) François Houle’s clarinet was a bird, several birds. It was beautiful. Of this movement Messiaen himself writes:

Clarinet alone. The abyss is Time with its sadness, its weariness. The birds are the opposite to Time; they are our desire for light, for stars for rainbows, and for jubilant songs.

Of the work, Quartet for the End Of Time, Turning Point Ensemble Conductor (and composer) Owen Underhill (seen here with dancer/choreographer Lauri Stallings) writes:

In 1940, Olivier Messiaen was interned in a German prison camp, where he discovered among his fellow prisoners a clarinetist, a violinist and a cellist. The success of a short trio which he wrote for them led him to add seven more movements to this Interlude, and a piano to the ensemble, to create the Quartet for the End of Time. Messiaen and his friends first performed it for their 5000 fellow prisoners on January 15, 1941.

According to the composer, the Quartet was intended not to be a commentary on the Apocalypse, nor to refer to his own captivity, but to be a kind of musical extension of the Biblical account, and of the concept of the end of Time as the end of past and future and the beginning of eternity. New Yorker critic Alex Ross has described this iconic work as "the most ethereally beautiful music of the twentieth century."

Of the rest of the program Underhill notes:

Paired with the Messiaen are three dynamic and colourful large ensemble pieces by one of Canada's most skillful and internationally respected composers, Vancouver born, Alexina Louie. “Louie’s music is a wondering pairing to the music of Messiaen, and the performance of these three significant large scale works is a substantial and overdue representation of the work for Vancouver audiences,” The works include the BC premiere of Imaginary Opera, Louie's Winter Music, a chamber concerto for viola and eleven performers commissioned by the Vancouver New Music Society and nominated for a Juno award for Best Classical Composition in 1998, featuring solo violist David Harding and her work, Ricochet featuring Turning Point Ensemble Co-Artistic Director and trombonist Jeremy Berkman.

If all the above is not enough to lure you to Sunday's concert let me add two more features that make me curious. While I was listening to the rehearsal I spotted percussionist Vern Griffiths (left) getting his instruments ready. I would describe what I saw to be a wall of sound instruments almost as wide as the church. I wanted to ask him what kind of vehicle or vehicles he needed to transport all the gongs, drums, bells, xylophones, etc that I saw.

And when was the last time you heard a piece for solo trombone?


The ever versatile cellist Peggy Lee has a short but glowing report on her new CD in the Sunday, November 30, NY Times:

The Canadian cellist, not the American singer, Peggy Lee has an eight-piece band that sounds like jazz, and then rock, and then a kind of chamber-music pastoralia, always flowing organically from one thing to the next. It’s made by collective improvisation, with lots of friction and jostle among the guitars and saxophones and brass and drums, but the Peggy Lee Band’s latest album, “New Code” (Drip Audio), isn’t aggressive; it’s full of pop melodies (including Bob Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do,” Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars” and plenty of Ms. Lee’s own), pretty drones and subtle shifts of arrangement brought on by Ms. Lee’s cues.


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