How Olivier Messiaen heard in colour

By: Geoffrey Brown | 25/01/08

Times newspaper

Reposted from

With most contemporary composers, the last thing you notice about them is what they wear. No one, I hope, is ever going to build a doctoral thesis round George Benjamin’s Hush Puppies or Oliver Knussen’s trousers: the matter is inconsequential.

But with the Hawaiian shirts and brightly knitted scarves of the French composer Olivier Messiaen, it’s hard to avoid connecting them with the extraordinarily colourful music he wrote: music that’s about to splash over the concrete slabs of the Southbank Centre in London in From the Canyons to the Stars, a centenary season stretching all the way from next weekend to December 10, the day of his 100th birthday.

Messiaen was no pinstriped, black-and-white composer. This is the composer of that exotic hothouse of rhythm and song the Turangalîla Symphony; the ritualised sound blocks of Chronochromie; the jangling dazzle of Couleurs de la cité céleste, inspired by visionary descriptions from the Book of Revelations. One way or another, every colour in Messiaen’s eyes led him towards the God of his steadfast Catholic faith; and every major piece he wrote found God’s reflection in the cut and sheen of crystals, the geological marvels of America’s national parks, the ebullient plumage of birds (in Messiaen’s view the world’s greatest musicians), or the simple miracle of light trapped in a drop of water.

He wrote in colours, too. Like Scriabin and Rimsky-Korsakov, Messiaen “suffered” from a form of synaesthesia, the neurological condition whereby one sensory perception arrives coupled with another. “I see colours when I hear sounds,” Messiaen explained to the French critic Claude Samuel in 1988, “but I don’t see colours with my eyes. I see colours intellectually, in my head.” He found, he said, that if a particular sound complex was repeated an octave higher, the colour he saw persisted, but grew paler. If the octave was lowered the colour darkened. Only if the sound complex was transposed into a different pitch did the colour inside Messiaen’s head radically change.
But where does Messiaen’s form of synaesthesia take the performer, or the listener? Messiaen offered what help he could by spelling out in words in his scores the precise colours he envisaged. Pianists in the second movement of his moving Quartet for the End of Time, written in a German PoW camp in 1940-41, are told to aim for “blueorange” chords. Musicians embroiled in Couleurs de la cité céleste need to be on their toes, conjuring “yellow topaz” for one chord cluster, “bright green” for the next: on and on, a constantly changing palette.

For the artist and pianist Mark Rowan-Hull, another witness to synaesthesia, Messiaen is particularly rewarding to interpret. He will take part in a workshop improvisation on February 15, painting his responses to Messiaen’s music on canvas.

The canvases he has previously generated in this way have been abstract, gestural, loud with bright colours, blues, reds, and yellows; some of the images have found their way on to Gillian Weir’s CD releases of Messiaen’s organ music.

But what of a brilliant pianist like Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the overall artistic director of this ambitious festival? He’s not a synaesthete himself: in playing Messiaen, Aimard says, the overriding challenge is to keep the sounds sufficiently precise. “Messiaen wanted everything clearly defined, every rhythm, colour and timbre. He used to say, ‘If I hear an interpretation, I should be able to take down every note in dictation’. Just as he himself took down in diction all the birdsongs that filled so many of his scores.”

Aimard’s connection with Messiaen stretches back to 1969, when he was 12. A student at the Paris Conservatoire, he took piano lessons with Messiaen’s second wife, Yvonne Loriod, who introduced him to the composer. When the Messiaens came to London the next year for the British premiere of his oratorio La Transfiguration at the Proms, they brought Aimard as well to learn and wonder. “I feel completely at home in his music,” he says. “It’s not my mother tongue exactly, but when I was a teenager it was the music that was most familiar to me. It’s part of my history, part of my blood.”

In the interests of the full Messiaen experience, Aimard also admits to having a private go recently on the Ondes Martenot, the electronic instrument that looks and sounds like a vacuum cleaner from outer space, proudly featured in several of the composer’s lush creations of the 1940s, notably Turangalîla. “You use the right hand to control the pitch. You use the left hand for dynamics. You have to dissociate the two hands. It’s very good training for the ear.” With the awful honesty of youth, Pierre Boulez told the composer in 1948 that the sound of the ondes in Turangalîlamade him want to vomit. That remark curtailed their friendship for a time. But like all Messiaen’s many students and listeners, Boulez still knew the giant worth of this most idiosyncratic and special composer – the man in the Hawaiian shirt who threw away music’s rulebook, opened his ears to the birds, and journeyed from the canyons to the stars seeking the colours of glory.