This is a blog devoted to music on the edge - experimental, underground, alternative, subversive, or just plain weird - new music that tries new things, or old music that broke old rules. It's a place to discuss ideas, share discoveries, to think about what makes music interesting and challenging but still good to listen to. Join in and have your say!!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

13 (no, 26) birds - Messiaen and Merzbow

50 years is a long time in music, and for birds, and much has changed for both of them since Olivier Messiaen wrote his mammoth and amazing piano epic Catalogue d'Oiseaux in 1958-9. So when Japanese noise artist Merzbow (aka Masami Akita) paid tribute both to Messiaen, and to birds, in his own epic 13 Japanese Birds in 2009-10, the story that his music told us was a very different one.

Neither of these works sound in the least bit similar to one another and yet there is a lot that they have in common, too. First, and most obviously, both of them pay tribute to 13 different birds. Second, both of them are mammoth works, Messiaen's taking nearly three hours to perform, Merzbow's around 12 hours. Third, both are conceived out of a deep, passionate love for birds and both want to show you not only the birds themselves but also the world they inhabit. And fourth, both are immensely confronting in their musical language.

Messiaen's music is stark and atonal - its melodies and rhythms are shaped by nature more than anything else and, despite what the 19th century romantics would have had us believe, birds don't sing in D Major or to a tidy 4/4 beat. Messiaen captured the chaos of birdsong, stylised it with an almost obsessive precision, and, breaking away from everything traditional in Western tonality, harmony and rhythm, created music that converted into sound the raspness, the shrillness, the relentlessness, of birdsong; the granite of cliffs, the colours of ponds and of skies - all in the way notes are picked out, or chords bashed out, discordant and uncompromising, on a piano. But, even so, this is the music of birds in their natural habitat and while, even to 21st century ears, Messiaen's music can sound confrontingly modern, this is music about an idyllic time, set in an idyllic space - until, in the final moments of the final piece, 'Le Courlis Cendré' (The Curlew), a devastating chord that seems to bash down every note of the piano keyboard, ushers in the first human intervention of the whole cycle - a lighthouse siren that breaks into the peace and darkness like a hammer blow.

It's the perfect segue into Merzbow whose music, in many ways, picks up where Messiaen left off - telling us the tale of what happened to the birds after humans intervened. Merzbow's music, with its ferocious electronic noise, generated by distortion and feedback, and driven forwards by Masami Akita's insanely wild drumming, is angry and aggressive. It's music in revolt, and loud enough to blast even your neighbours' speakers. Here the birdsong is still there, but now it is crying out, screaming out, amidst all the atrocities that modern development has built around it. Here Messiaen's birds, and their habitat, have been brutalised, beaten and battered and Merzbow pours forth his rage in music that is harsh, savage, grinding.

Both Messiaen and Merzbow achieved incredible things in this music - music of titanic proportions conveying titanic worlds to us: one bright and full of hope, the other dark and full of disgust; both, in the end, overpowered by that unrelenting, underlying, force that keeps life and music going.

Nature and music have changed a lot since Beethoven wrote the gentle, although still eternally engaging, melodies and colours of his 6th Symphony - music that still makes me feel somehow at peace when I listen to it. Beethoven taught us how to bask in nature, how to lie back and doze off in its dappled sunlight. Messiaen taught us to respect its wildness. Merzbow taugh us to fear its vengenance.

Try to get hold of both of these pieces of music. The Messiaen is a little more easily obtained than the Merzbow - but both are worth whatever you have to wait, or pay, to get them.


  1. Hi Ian
    I've just 'caught up' with the postings on the new blog. It will be interesting to see whether/how it develops differently to 'What music are you listening to?'
    As a callow youth, I heard Messiaen's 'Chronochromie' ('Time-colour') (1959-1960) on the wireless and have (clearly) never forgotten the great paradox it created. His clear intention was to use an orchestra to 'play' birdsong (i.e. use culture to reproduce nature), yet the result was unlike any birdsong I'd ever heard. Had Messiaen 'failed', therefore? At the time, I thought so. Years later, immersed in debates about realism, naturalism, etc., I saw that I'd asked the wrong question: rather than 'Is the music a (recognisable) copy of the original?', I should have asked, 'How does the music represent (lit. 're-present') the original?' Culture never equals nature.
    In the meantime, I'd discovered Messiaen's 'Turangalila' symphony (1946-1948), just as I was beginning to feel comfortable with Stravinsky & Shostakovitch!

  2. Yes, that's exactly as I see it too, Patrick - a re-presentation. I understand that Messiaen would record birdsong and then meticulously refram it within to confines of Western music's twelve-tone scale - adjusting the intervals of the original birdsong, and their rhythms, so the proportions between them remained intact. In doing that, he really quite literally translated birdsong into music and then built the rest of the sounds around that. He put colour in there too - for him, different sounds always conjured up different and very vivid, precise colours ... it's actually a neurological condition, which I can't remember the name of - but he had it, and imbued his music with it.

    The Turangalila Symphony is amazing. I unfortunately missed the iconic performance in Melbourne in 1988, with Messiaen conducting, his wife on the piano and his sister-in-law on the Ondes Martenot, but saw it performed years later - phenomenal work to see live. If MDMA came in aural form, that woud surely be it!

  3. That neurological condition is synaesthesia.