Posted by: roamingolivia | May 17, 2010

Messiaen, and what I’ve been doing

I haven’t blogged in a long time, so I wouldn’t be that surprised if no one is reading this anymore. I am sort of trying to figure out what kind of blogging I want to be doing, and how that intersects with my desire to write more. But that is a boring thing to blog about, so I won’t.

Last week I was in London, mostly to move out of my flat there (yay for storage spaces), but the move-out date coincided nicely with tickets I bought about six months ago to see Gergiev conducting the London Symphony Orchestra playing Messiaen’s Turangalila-Symphonie. I want to be more into classical music, but I am not yet, but I learned about Messiaen from this book I read last year and have since been obsessed about (and I mean that literally), The Rest is Noise. (The book is by the New Yorker‘s music critic Alex Ross, and you can see that soon he will have a new book, which is dangerous for me but overall very good.)

Anyway: I wish I’d had time to look up the chapter that discussed this symphony before I went to the concert, but as it was I was running down the street to get there on time, so that was impossible. (Last week was full of being busy and doing things at the last minute, and forgetting something almost every time I left the office… as all good weeks in London are.) I got frustrated with not knowing “the point” of it, though, and read Wikipedia’s page on it after the intermission.

The concert was incredible, though, but it gave me a chance to think about why I feel I need to know or understand what is happening in the music. The music itself is beautiful enough to just listen to, the way I just listen to Beethoven or Mozart – who also had ideas in their music. There are a few reasons for this, including the fact that earlier composers are more familiar to us, so we don’t think they are doing anything but making us feel comfortable, and also I played their music, so I think more about that than about the ways they revolutionised music at the time.

But there is another thing. When I was reading (read: listening to in my car in the US last year) The Rest is Noise, which explains a lot about these ideas – composition ideas, and how you use notes and rhythms and music in general – it dawned on me that this was the significance of all that boring theory stuff my piano teachers attempted to expose me to – and eventually failed (the way almost everyone has failed when trying to make me do something I don’t see as relevant). I don’t know if it would have worked, but someone should have maybe explained that the whole idea of classical music (and early music in general) was essentially about theory – about making notes and chords and rhythms that make us think and feel a certain way. Modern music is more disconcerting because it is reflecting an entirely different idea of what the purpose of music is. And those chords matter, and they were eventually deconstructed, along with so much else in the Twentieth Century. No one explained that to me. I was also eight, or twelve, or sixteen, so maybe it’s not their fault if the message didn’t get through.

So the concert made me wish I knew more. It also made me remember the time we went, as a Kindergarten class (I think – maybe 1st or 2nd grade), to see Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. That concert – the imagery of the hunter and the story and the music (although not in detail) – really sticks in my mind as a good example of how to introduce the magic of music to children. This concert seemed somehow related, as if I was again on a school trip, having an explanation of what the music is saying, and then listening to its language – which was vivid and beautiful and effective.

I still have lots of pictures and things to put up on this blog, so stay posted.


  1. I am still reading your blog! Happy to see you’ve posted something new!

    Going to New York tomorrow and staying with Emily for a week. Super excited to see her and Emi and Kieran, and other friends from undergrad. Wish you were going to be there!

  2. I still remember reading Alex Ross’s New Yorker piece about Quartet for the End of Time. Here it is:

    I’d never heard it before, but after I read the Ross piece, I downloaded it from iTunes and listened to it for a week straight. It did feel illuminated to me, and that’s the part I like, not the blind listening, but the understanding it too.

    Strange how all the words I use to describe music are words about vision: “illuminated,” “blind.”

  3. I’m still reading, and Peter and the Wolf is an awesome example of showing kids how music can be tied to and add to a story. I remember seeing/hearing it several times when I was little.

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