You are on page 1of 8

Canyons, Colours and Birds: An Interview with Oliver Messiaen Author(s): Olivier Messiaen and Harriet Watts Source:

Tempo, New Series, No. 128, (Mar., 1979), pp. 2-8 Published by: Cambridge University Press Stable URL: Accessed: 30/07/2008 17:05
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission.

JSTOR is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1995 to build trusted digital archives for scholarship. We work with the scholarly community to preserve their work and the materials they rely upon, and to build a common research platform that promotes the discovery and use of these resources. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

CANYONS, COLOURS AND BIRDS: An Interview with Oliver Messiaen

On 5 August, 1978, nine milesfrom Parawan, Utah, the White Cliffs, also known as Lion's Peak, were renamed in honour of the French composer Olivier Messiaen. Mount Messiaen-elevation 8,ooofeet; vegetation: aspen, juniper, bristle-cone and pondorosa pine; geological features spectacularly eroded promentaries of red and white sandstoneis now a state monument commemoratingMessiaen's visit to the canyons of Southern Utah. This visit in 1973 inspired his latest symphonic work, From the Canyons to the Stars. The dedication of the mountain culminated a threeyear effort to honour Messiaen in Utah. The project was undertaken by onefamily with frontier roots in Parawan and family members scatteredfrom New York to Paris, Mexico City and the Antarctic, all involved with Mount Messiaen. When the Edison Whitakerfamily heard of Messiaen's canyon symphonyand his description of Southern Utah as the most mystical landscape he had ever encountered, they wrote to the composer asking if he would agree to Parawan's naming something in his honour. Messiaen responded with delight that anything in his name would be a great honour, even a side street or a nature pathfor bird watchers. Julie Whitaker in New York handled negotiations with Messiaen's impresario and then flew to Paris with the news that a mountain outside the town had been made available for renaming. Ed and LeMar Whitaker convinced their neighbours in Parawan, none of whom had heard of Olivier Messiaen before, to contribute time and money to a dedication ceremony and concert. Lyman Whitaker returned homefrom a construction project in the Antarctic to cast a bronze plaque and build a sandstone monumentat thefoot of the mountain. Linda WhitakerVerdu in Mexico City arrangedfor a performance of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. After the clarinettist broke a finger two weeks before the dedications Lowell and Naomi Farr, two well-known Messiaen interpreters in Salt Lake City, agreed at last moment's notice to perform the cycle Songs from Heaven and Hell in Parawan. The photographer J. S. Cartier contributed photographs of Utah for an exhibition in the concert hall. The governor of the State officially proclaimed 5 August 'Olivier Messiaen and the Beauty of Southern Utah Day'. Messiaen himself, not scheduled to arrive in America until October, telegraphed his appreciation to Parawan. When Messiaen began the tour celebrating his 7oth birthday, hisfirst stop was Boston. I was able to give him a first hand account of his Parawan birthday party as well as photographs and rocks from his mountain. In this interview, originally conductedfor Decade magazine, he discusses the role of the Utah canyons, colours and birds in his
@? 979 by Decade


was the workchosenand From the Canyons to the Stars. This symphony symphony conductedby Pierre Boulezfor the actual observance Messiaen's birthday in Paris of
Olivier Messiaen is eager to visit his mountain in Utah as soon as As he explains in the interview, 'I now have the obligation to present myself possible. before those three cliffs; they are there waitingfor me.'
Io December, I978.

Harriet Watts
H.W.: What madeyou choose southern Utah as the source of inspirationforyour last symphony?

O.M.: Well, this is what happened. My impresario had introduced me to Miss Alice Tully from New York and Miss Tully wanted to commission a work from me for the American Bicentennial. I had no time and I said that I would be unable to accept her offer, but then she invited me to dinner. In the course of the meal, she told me how much she loved animals and that she travelled to India for the sole purpose of shaking the paw of a lion. Well, at first I laughed at this story, but then afterwards I recalled the account of the 'Chevalier au Lion' of Chretien de Troyes, a French romance of the Middle Ages, and after having laughed, I cried. I said to myself, that woman is amazing, to go all the way to India just to see a lion and shake its paw, that's marvelous, and I accepted the commission. It was a commission for a work in honour of the United States. I thought it over a long time, I looked at my geography books, at all the books I have at home,
over 7,000,

series has everything, the Sphinx of Egypt, extraordinary things, and I said to myself, the grandest and the most beautiful marvels of the world must be the canyons of Utah. So, I'll have to got to Utah. At that time I was in the process of recording in Washington with Mr. Dorati my work La Transfiguration,and I called up my impresario, Mr. Breslin, and I said to him, 'I want to go to Bryce Canyon'. 'What's that?' he exclaimed, and I explained, 'Bryce Canyon is the must beautiful thing in the United States.' 'Oh?' 'So', I said, 'You'll have to find a way for me to get there'. He was horrified: 'But it's so far away'. I said 'Well, it's either that or the Islands of Hawaii'. 'Oh, no, that's even further', he said. So, the matter was settled, we were to go to Bryce Canyon. These impresarios are remarkable; he was surprised, but in less than an hour, I had the tickets to Salt Lake City and a reservation for a rental car to drive to Bryce Canyon. We arrived, the car picked us up, and off we went to the Canyon. At the entrance to Bryce Canyon there is a little inn where one could eat, sleep, wash up-very small, but actually very clean and there was no problem staying there. So we remained for eight days. I had chosen the spring season, for, as you know, I'm an ornithologist and one can transcribe the songs of birds only in the spring, because it is the season of courtship, the period in which the males sing in order to assert their territorial claims, to seduce the female, and to greet the break of day. Well, there were birds in Bryce Canyon, because it was springtime; and, in addition, because it was spring, there were no tourists. We were all alone, it was marvelous, an absolute solitude. Apparently one can traverse the canyon on a horse or a mule, but I went on foot because it's much nicer that way. One can stop, take notes, make photos, transcribe bird songs, and there's all the time in the world just to appreciate the landscape.

and into a special series of books I own, Les Marveilles du Monde. This


I knew that Bryce Canyon was beautiful, because I had read all about it, I looked at pictures of it, but it was even more beautiful than in the photographs. It's quite amazing; first, it's so big, immense, it's a landscape of nothing but cliffs and boulders in fantastic shapes. There are castles, towers, dungeons, there are turrets, bridges, towers, windows, and then, even more beautiful, there are the colours. Everything is red, all sorts of reds: red-violet, a red-orange, rose, dark red carmine, scarlet red, all possible varieties of red, an extraordinary beauty. I observed all of this very carefully, I wrote it all down, notation after notation. My wife took at least 200 photographs, but I was writing it all down, not only the songs of birds, but the colours of the cliffs, the new shoots of vegetation, the smell of sage (in French, that's 'armoise', a plant with a very pungent smell, a bit like thyme or pepper, really strong, a smell that permeates the whole landscape). And then there were the birds of Bryce Canyon, birds not to be found anywhere else but there, for example, the western tanager, a little bird which is red and yellow with a lovely voice, very flute-like which sings a combination of three notes (tiot, tiot, tiot). Then there's a very large bird which is called a blue grouse, which goes 'wuh, wuh, wuh', a strange, deep sound which really fascinated me. And then there was a bird that was beautiful to look at but with an awful voice, that's just what interested me, it's the clark nutcracker, black and grey, with an incredible voice, what a racket! If you get three or four of them together, it's like a whole orchestra, a powerful sound. So, I took advantage of all these birds and put them into the music, along with the colours. Colours are very important to me because I have a gift-it's not my fault, it's just how I am-whenever 1 hear music, or even if I read music, I see colours. They correspond to the sounds, rapid colours which turn, mix, combine and move with the sounds. Like the sounds they are high, low, quick, long, strong, weak, etc. The colours do just what the sounds do. They are always changing, but they are marvelous and they reproduce themselves each time one repeats the same sound complex. It's a theory that's a bit complicated, but I'll explain how it works. Take a note, any note, and there is a corresponding colour. If you change the note, even by a semitone, it's no longer the same colour. With the twelve semitones the colour never remains the same. But once you reach the octave, you have the original colour again. It recommences with the high octaves and with the low octaves. In the higher octaves, it becomes progressively more diluted with white, and in the lower octaves, it is mixed with black so that it's darker. with his theoryof colour H.W.: Areyoufamiliar with the workof VassilyKandinsky, in Concerning the Spiritual in the Work of Art? O.M.: Oh, yes, I know Kandinsky very well, he's a great painter. My two favourite painters are Kandinsky and Robert Delauney. Delauney was concerned with what one calls in painting 'simultaneous contrasts', which is to say, if you paint a green, for example, there is a red which appears behind it; if you paint a red, a green appears behind it. These are complementary colours which take place in the eye even if they don't exist in actual reality. own theories,but in reverse. The soul responds H.W.: Well, Kandinsky expressedyour to the work of art in terms of vibrations, accordingto Kandinsky,and the vibration droduced a colourcan resultin a musicalsound. by


That's wonderful; just the reverse of what I've said, I'm pleased to O.M.: hear that he has a similar theory. Actually there are two other men one could mention in this context. There is Ciurlionis, he was a Lithuanian painter, the greatest genius of Lithuania. He was a painter whose paintings have musical titles, he composed symphonies in his paintings, they're called Scherzo, Allegro, another painting is called Finale. They are paintings of music. He was a composer of music as well, but, above all, he was a painter. And he put music into his paintings. When I was young, I also knew a Swiss painter called Blanc-Gatti. He had an actual disorder, he was synethesist, which means that he had a derangement of the optic nerve and whenever he heard sounds, he saw colours. And whenever he looked at objects around him, these objects were surrounded by superimposed circles of colour. Blanc-Gatti was able to survive with this disorder, but throughout his life, he saw more and more coloured circles. I have one of his paintings in my house, a painting of an organ. You can see the organpipes, the rose window in a church, but all around the pipes-I suppose that the organist must have been playing-there are coloured circles, red, blue, etc., all spinning. It's a strange phenomenon, but it's an actual disease. I don't have this physical disorder, but I do perceive the colours intellectually. Actually, there are two experiments you can conduct that are related. If you play a very low note on the piano and wait for a moment, you'll hear the octave, the fifth, the third, the seventh, and since I have a highly trained ear, I hear the ninth, the augmented fourth, etc. I hear a whole series of harmonics. And, the second experiment, which resembles the first: if you look at a colour against a white background, for example, a red paper against a white paper, at the line of demarcation between the red and the white, if you watch it a long time with great concentration, you'll perceive the line of demarcation as much, much redder than the rest, and afterwards, like electrical emissions, you'll see marvelous greens that leap out all around the red. H.W.: So that is like the harmonics sound? of

O.M.: Yes, it's a colour harmonic. So, if you have a note a fifth above a yellow note, you'll see a violet; if you have a fifth at blue, you'll see an orange. I've often carried out these experiments with my students at the conservatory; they all thought I was crazy, but that's of no importance. I do it anyway, because I'm convinced of the results. Bryce Canyon was of special interest to me. That's because it had all those wonderful colours, and I wanted to put them into music. So, the piece I composed about Bryce Canyon is red and orange, the colour of the cliffs. I proceeded on through the canyons. Next I was at Cedar Breaks. The name is very difficult to translate into French. Cedar is the word for 'cedres', but there aren't any cedars there. Breaks, well, that's like a 'trou', a hole, I don't know how one should say that in French, perhaps 'l'abime des cedres' (the abyss of cedars). Anyway, it's a very impressive spot, an immense amphitheatre with an enormous slash in the earth, very, very, deep, it is frightening, and the feeling I had there was religious. I composed a piece entitled, 'Cedar Breaks is the Gift of Fear'. Fear in a religious sense, not the sort of fear one has of the police, but a fear which is a reverence before something sacred. One senses a divine presence, something which is sacred, one is subjugated to this feeling, the gift of fear. I felt that Cedar Breaks gave one that sense of fear.


After Cedar Breaks, I continued on to Zion Park. The cliffs there are also very beautiful, but less red, less fantastic. The atmosphere is more somber, serene, more sacred, even more celestial. I believe that it is indeed celestial, because the Mormons, who discovered this place, called it Zion Park. Zion in the Bible is the synonym of Jerusalem, not of the earthly Jerusalem, but of the celestial city itself, thus, the gift of heaven. So, I did like the Mormons and composed a piece which is called 'Zion Park and the Celestial City.' My work concluded with paradise, the piece composed for Zion Park. At Zion, it was still springtime, the season of love and song for the birds. In Zion there were the most beautiful birds of all. First, and perhaps most important, there was the cassis finch with a lovely, lovely voice, flute-like with a charming timbre, a marvelous virtuoso. The bird itself is red. Then there was the grey vireo which is very imperative, it's the drillmaster of birds (co mo! co mo !) and then a wonderful singer, the western meadowlark. It has a yellow breast with a black hood. Its song is incredible, very limpid, with many harmonics. Each note carries five or six harmonics; it's one of the greatest songbirds of the United States. There were numerous specimens of all three types, the cassis finch, the grey vireo, the western meadowlark in Zion Park. After seeing and taking notes on all this, I composed my work on the canyons. I'd seen the canyons from two different perspectives. I'd seen them from on high, with the vertigo of the abyss, that's important, one sees vast black holes against the red of the cliffs. Afterwards my wife and I went down the trails, very carefully, never leaving the paths and we made our way to the depths, all the way to the bottom. From the depths of the abyss, we could see the path circling very high above us, to and that is what inspired the title of my work, Fromthe Canyons the Stars, one from the deepest bowels of the earth and ascends towards the stars. progresses From the titles of all the pieces in the composition, you'll see that they're suggestive of Utah. The first piece is called 'The Desert', a place where one is all alone, and after that, the second movement is called 'The Orioles', which refers to the orioles of the United States. The next piece is 'That which is Written in the Stars'. Written in the stars are those terrible words, Mene Tekel Upharsin which mean weigh, count, divide. The stars are weighed, counted, and divided. Afterwards there is a solo bird piece called White-Browed Robin. Then there is the piece to 'Cedar Breaks and the Gift of Fear', or the reverence for the sacred. Next there is a piece for solo horn which is called 'Interstellar Appeal', one calls for help in the midst of the stars, to the void between the stars, and then there is 'Bryce Canyon and the Red-Orange Cliffs', that's the principal piece, the chant of victory, and then there is another piece to the stars called 'The Resurrected'. It is situated beyond death and is for those who have been resurrected. It is the song of the star Aldebaran. It is not the resurrected who sing, but the stars themselves, because it seems that stars do sing. One can record vibrations from stars, each star has its own vibration and produces a note. You know, there are musicians who have chosen their own star; the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen has chosen the star Sirius, he prefers Sirius above all others because it is the most brilliant. For myself, I've chosen Aldebaran, because it has a nice name, a really charming name. It's an Arabic name which means the one who follows, Aldebaran, the follower. I chose that particular star because it has a great velocity, a great light, and because it follows the Pleiades. I found that to be an admirable function of the follower. Afterwards, there is an extensive piano solo which is called 'The Polyglot


Mocking bird', that famous mocking bird which one finds all over the United States, even at Washington, D.C. and especially throughout California. I've heard it in Pasedena, in Santa Barbara, in San Francisco, all over California. Then there is a piece to a bird called 'The Wood Thrush'. After that, in remembrance of my phone call to my impresario and his exclamation 'Bryce Canyon, it's so far away' and my reply, 'if it's not Bryce Canyon, it will be the islands of Hawaii', recalling that reference to Hawaii, I've included a piece on the birds of Hawaii. It is called 'Omao, Leiothrix, Elepuio, Shamn.' These are all birds that one finds in Hawaii. And the four names together constitute a verse line, an Alexandrine, 'Omao, Leiothrix, Elepuio, Sham'. Then finally one ends in paradise, like the Mormons who believed that they had discovered the celestial Jerusalem at Zion Park. The last piece is called 'Zion Park and the Celestial City'. Did the landscapesin SouthernUtah also influencethe temposin the various H.W.: piecesof your work? You'veoften spokenof tempoas an individual and subjectivephenby by omenon,forexample,time as experienced the stars, time as experienced man, time as by experienced cells. Didyou have a particularsenseof terrestialtime, of geological time in Utah? O.M.: Yes, I think one senses it most strongly in Zion Park, one sees the beds of strata which correspond to the geological periods. But since I'm not a geologist, I can't really answer you with exactitude, but in fact, one does see traces of those different epochs at Bryce Canyon, at Cedar Breaks, but even more in Zion Park, especially at one mountain called the Great White Throne. Actually, you've touched on a point which isn't my speciality, but geology does interest me a lot. I studied it a bit in my youth, along with astronomy. I spent my childhood in the Dauphine, a mountainous landscape, and maybe that's one reason I was so attracted to the cliffs of Bryce Canyon. You've often spoken of the famous glacier in the Dauphine, the Glacier of H.W.: Meije, and the inspirationyou have drawnfrom its white light. The light inspiringyou in BryceCanyonmust have been of quite a differentnature. Indeed. The light isn't at all the same, especially since at Bryce one O.M.: sees it in two completely different fashions. One sees it from on high and from below, from the depths and from above at the opening of the abyss. What is really special at Bryce Canyon is the sunrise and the sunset. They're beautiful everywhere, of course, with their varieties of rose and red, but in Bryce Canyon the phenomenon is intensified by the colour of the cliffs, because the cliffs, which are already red, become even redder with the reflection of the violets and oranges of the sunrise and also, of the sunset. But the two are different. The nuances, the intensities are not the same. There are even peaks in Bryce which refer to these specific lightings: for example, Sunrise Point. I'd like to add one last word concerning the orchestration of this work, which is long, it lasts an hour and 40 minutes, to be exact. It includes a piano solo, very important, of course. There are pieces which it plays completely alone. A horn solo-that's something new-the horn does extraordinary things, trills on a closed note, suppressed notes, all sorts of bizarre things. There's a brass choir, a trio of woodwinds and brass, an instrument which is a cross between a xylophone and a marimba, a solo glockenspiel, like in the Magic Flute, bells, gongs, a tam tam, and two very unusual instruments, the neolophone, or a wind


machine, and a geophone, or an earth machine. They make extraordinary noises; the geophone has a beautiful timbre; it's an immense drum, flat, with a hollow above and a hollow below the drum head. One rotates the drum very slowly from left to right and right to left and it produces a noise one hears by the ocean when a wave is receeding and the pebbles and sand are drawn along behind it-cshshsh sh sh cshshsh sh sh-that's the sound it makes. Mixed with horn trills, for example, it produces an extraordinary effect, one does not really know what one is hearing, the effect is very disorienting but the timbre is beautiful. Well, I think I've said a lot about this piece, but one last sentimental note. This work was first performed, of course, at New York in the Alice Tully Hall, because it was commissioned by Miss Tully. The premiere was under the direction of Mr. Frederick Waldmann, with his orchestra, the Musica Aeterna. It was in that lovely small hall, the Alice Tully Hall, decorated with just the right colours, orange and red. Later it was performed in France, at the Theatre de la Ville with Marius Constant, and this year it will be performed again on precisely the tenth of December, that's my birthday, and since I was born at midnight, it will finish at the moment of my birth. It will be a major performance, conducted by Pierre Boulez. One last questionforyou, MonsieurMessiaen. How doyoufeel about having H.W.: your ownmountainnowin Utah, MountMessiaen? OM.: Ah, it's just incredible and very touching. When I told my impresario about it, he was amazed. When I told my publisher M. Leduc in Paris about it, he was astounded, too. He couldn't imagine that there would be a mountain anywhere with my name; at first he laughed, but then he almost cried. And we plan to go back there soon. It's a great excuse to see Utah again, and, in any case, it seems to me that I now have the obligation to present myself before those three cliffs. They're there waiting for me.