Messiaen Entrevista

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7/27/2019 Messiaen Entrevista 1/8 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: 15/10/2013 23:55 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected]. . Cambridge University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Tempo. This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Oct 2013 23:55:19 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

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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 Press

Stable URL: .

Accessed: 15/10/2013 23:55

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .

.JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of 

content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms

of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected].


Cambridge University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Tempo.

This content downloaded from on Tue, 15 Oct 2013 23:55:19 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

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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 sandstone-

is now a state monumentcommemoratingMessiaen's visit to the canyons of Southern Utah.

This visit in1973 inspired

his latestsymphonic

work, From theCanyons

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 descriptionof Southern Utah as the mostmystical 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. JulieWhitaker in New York handled negotiations with Messiaen's impresario and then flew to

Paris 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 heard

of Olivier Messiaen before, to contribute time and moneyto a dedication ceremonyand con-

cert. Lyman Whitaker returned homefrom a constructionproject in the Antarctic to cast a

bronzeplaque and build a sandstone monumentat thefoot of the mountain. Linda Whitaker-

Verduin 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 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 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 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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symphonyFrom the Canyons to the Stars. This symphonywas the work chosenand

conductedby PierreBoulezfor the actual observanceof Messiaen'sbirthday in Paris

Io December, I978. Olivier Messiaen is eager to visit his mountain in Utah as soon as

possible. As he explains in the interview, 'I now have the obligation to present myself

before those three cliffs; they are there waitingfor me.'

Harriet Watts

H.W.: What madeyou choose southern Utah as the source of inspirationforyour last


O.M.: Well, this is what happened. My impresario had introduced me to

Miss AliceTully

from New York and Miss


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 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 it

over 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. This

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 themust 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 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 of

courtship, 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 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 Iwent 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.


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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





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


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


pepper, really strong,a smell that

permeatesthe 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 combina-

tion 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 reallyfascinated 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 1hear 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 theoctave, you have the original colour again. It recommences with the high oc-

taves and with the low octaves. In the higher octaves, it becomes progressivelymore diluted with white, and in the lower octaves, it is mixed with black so

that it's darker.

H.W.: Areyoufamiliar with the workof VassilyKandinsky,with his theoryof colour

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



and RobertDelauney. 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.

H.W.: Well, Kandinsky xpressedyour wntheories,but in reverse. The soulrespondsto the work of art in termsof vibrations,accordingto Kandinsky,and the vibration

droducedby a colourcan resultin a musicalsound.


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O.M.: That's wonderful; just the reverse of what I've said, I'm pleased to

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



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 composerof 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 derangementof the optic nerve and whenever he heard sounds, he saw colours. And whenever

he looked at objects around him, these objects were surrounded by superimposedcircles of colour. Blanc-Gatti was able to survive with this disorder, but through-

out his life,he saw more and more coloured circles. I have one of his

paintingsin 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 redpaper 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


H.W.: So that is like the harmonics f sound?

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'veoften 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 composedabout 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 anycedars 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, somethingwhich is sacred, one is subjugated to this feeling, the gift of fear. I felt that

Cedar Breaks gave one that sense of fear.


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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 com-

posed a piece which is called 'Zion Park and the Celestial City.' My work con-

cluded 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 perhapsmost important,there was the cassis finch with a lovely, lovely voice, flute-like with a charmingtimbre, a marvelous virtuoso. The bird itself is red. Then there was the greyvireo which is

very imperative,it's the drillmaster of birds

(como! co mo


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 canyonsfrom two different perspectives. I'd seen them from on high, with the vertigoof 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 leav-

ing 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,and that is what inspired the title of my work, From he Canyonso the Stars, one

progresses from the deepest bowels of the earth and ascends towards the stars.

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 Upharsinwhich mean weigh, count, divide. The stars are weighed, counted, and divided.

Afterwards there is a solo bird piece called White-Browed Robin. Then there isthe 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; theGerman composer Karlheinz Stockhausen has chosen the star Sirius, he prefersSirius 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


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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 SantaBarbara,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

faraway' 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 Parkand the Celestial City'.

H.W.: Did the landscapes n SouthernUtah also influence he tempos n the various

piecesof your work? You'veoftenspokenof tempoas an individualand subjectivephen-

omenon,for example, ime as experienced y the stars,time as experienced y man, timeas

experienced y cells. Didyou have a particularsenseof terrestial ime, of geologicaltime

in Utah?

O.M.: Yes, I think one senses it most strongly in Zion Park, one sees the beds

of stratawhich 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'vetouched 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.

H.W.: You'veoften spoken of the famous glacier in the Dauphine, the Glacier of

Meije, and the inspirationyouhavedrawnfromits whitelight. Thelight inspiringyouin BryceCanyonmusthave beenof quite a differentnature.

O.M.: Indeed. The light isn't at all the same, especially since at Bryce onesees 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 Canyonthe 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


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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 slowlyfrom

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 ex-

ample, 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 direc-

tion 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 rightcolours, 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 preciselythe 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, con-

ducted by Pierre Boulez.

H.W.: One last questionforyou, MonsieurMessiaen. How doyoufeel abouthaving

your own mountainnow n Utah,MountMessiaen?

OM.: Ah, it's just incredible and very touching. When I told my impresarioabout 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.


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