Messiaen Entrevista

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    Canyons, Colours and Birds: An Interview with Oliver MessiaenAuthor(s): Olivier Messiaen and Harriet WattsSource: Tempo, New Series, No. 128 (Mar., 1979), pp. 2-8Published by: Cambridge University PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/946059 .

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    CANYONS, COLOURS AND BIRDS:An Interview with Oliver MessiaenOn 5 August, 1978, nine milesfrom Parawan, Utah, the White Cliffs, also known asLion's Peak, were renamed in honour of the French composer Olivier Messiaen. MountMessiaen-elevation 8,ooofeet; vegetation: aspen, juniper, bristle-cone and pondorosapine; geological features spectacularly eroded promentaries of red and white sandstone-is now a state monumentcommemoratingMessiaen's visit to the canyons of Southern Utah.This visit in 1973 inspired his latest symphonicwork, From the Canyons to the Stars.The dedication of the mountain culminated a threeyear effort to honour Messiaen inUtah. The project was undertaken by onefamily with frontier roots in Parawan and

    family members scatteredfrom New York to Paris, Mexico City and the Antarctic, allinvolved with Mount Messiaen. When the Edison Whitakerfamily heard of Messiaen'scanyon symphonyand his descriptionof Southern Utah as the mostmystical landscape he hadever encountered, they wrote to the composer asking if he would agree to Parawan'snaming something in his honour. Messiaen responded with delight that anything in hisname would be a great honour, even a side street or a nature pathfor bird watchers. JulieWhitaker in New York handled negotiations with Messiaen's impresario and then flew toParis with the news that a mountain outside the town had beenmade available for renaming.Ed and LeMar Whitaker convinced their neighbours in Parawan, none of whom had heardof Olivier Messiaen before, to contribute time and moneyto a dedication ceremonyand con-cert. Lyman Whitaker returned homefrom a constructionproject in the Antarctic to cast abronzeplaque and build a sandstone monumentat thefoot of the mountain. Linda Whitaker-Verduin Mexico City arrangedfor a performance of Messiaen's Quartet for the End ofTime. After the clarinettist broke a finger two weeks before the dedications Lowell andNaomi Farr, two well-known Messiaen interpreters in Salt Lake City, agreed at lastmoment's notice to perform the cycle Songs from Heaven and Hell in Parawan. Thephotographer J. S. Cartier contributed photographs of Utahfor an exhibition in the con-cert hall. The governor of the State officially proclaimed 5 August 'Olivier Messiaen andthe Beauty of Southern Utah Day'. Messiaen himself, not scheduled to arrive in Americauntil 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 asphotographs and rocksfrom his mountain. In this interview, originally conductedforDecade magazine, he discusses the role of the Utah canyons, colours and birds in his

    @? 979 by Decade

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    CANYONS, COLOURS AND BIRDSsymphonyFrom the Canyons to the Stars. This symphonywas the work chosenandconductedby PierreBoulezfor the actual observanceof Messiaen'sbirthday in ParisIo December, I978. Olivier Messiaen is eager to visit his mountain in Utah as soon aspossible. As he explains in the interview, 'I now have the obligation to present myselfbefore those three cliffs; they are there waitingfor me.'

    Harriet WattsH.W.: What madeyou choose southern Utah as the source of inspirationforyour lastsymphony?O.M.: Well, this is what happened. My impresario had introduced me toMiss Alice Tully from New York and Miss Tully wanted to commission a workfrom me for the American Bicentennial. I had no time and I said that I would beunable to accept her offer, but then she invited me to dinner. In the course ofthe meal, she told me how much she loved animals and that she travelled toIndia for the sole purpose of shaking the paw of a lion. Well, at first I laughed atthis story, but then afterwards I recalled the account of the 'Chevalier au Lion' ofChretien de Troyes, a French romance of the Middle Ages, and after having laugh-ed, I cried. I said to myself, that woman is amazing, to go all the way to Indiajustto 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 itover a long time, I looked at my geography books, at all the books I have at home,over 7,000, and into a special series of books I own, Les Marveilles du Monde. Thisseries has everything, the Sphinx of Egypt, extraordinary things, and I said tomyself, the grandest and the most beautiful marvels of the world must be thecanyons of Utah. So, I'll have to got to Utah. At that time I was in the process ofrecording in Washington with Mr. Dorati my work La Transfiguration,and Icalled up my impresario, Mr. Breslin, and I said to him, 'I want to go to BryceCanyon'. 'What's that?' he exclaimed, and I explained, 'Bryce Canyon is themust beautiful thing in the United States.' 'Oh?' 'So', I said, 'You'll have tofind 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 toBryce 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 stayingthere. So we remained for eight days.I had chosen the spring season, for, as you know, I'm an ornithologist andone can transcribe the songs of birds only in the spring, because it is the season ofcourtship, the period in which the males sing in order to assert their territorialclaims, to seduce the female, and to greet the break of day. Well, there were birdsin Bryce Canyon, because it was springtime; and, in addition, because it wasspring, there were no tourists. We were all alone, it was marvelous, an absolutesolitude. Apparently one can traverse the canyon on a horse or a mule, but Iwent on foot because it's much nicer that way. One can stop, take notes, makephotos, transcribe bird songs, and there's all the time in the world just toappreciate the landscape.

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    I knew that Bryce Canyon was beautiful, because I had read all about it, Ilooked 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 butcliffs and boulders in fantastic shapes. There are castles, towers, dungeons, thereare turrets, bridges, towers, windows, and then, even more beautiful, there arethe 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 afternotation.My wife took at least 200 photographs, but I was writing it all down, notonly 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 wholelandscape). And then there were the birds of Bryce Canyon, birds not to befound anywhere else but there, for example, the western tanager, a little birdwhich is red and yellow with a lovely voice, very flute-like which sings a combina-tion of three notes (tiot, tiot, tiot). Then there's a very large bird which is calleda blue grouse, which goes 'wuh, wuh, wuh', a strange,