When Olivier Messiaen meets James Brown

In 2007, while practising a technically difficult passage for a performance of Messiaen's Livre du Saint Sacrement (1983), I realized that his melodies, in particular those which imitate bird song, often contain archetypal call and response motives which might be transformed and used for improvisation and composition in an entirely different context. This passage is found on page 150 and 151:

It starts at "Un peu vif" and, using the digitalized sound of the Cavaillé-Coll organ in Caen (the type of organ Messiaen had in mind while composing the piece) sounds as follows:

Reconstructing the process of discovery, I marked the separate phrases with A1 - H. While slowly practising phrase C with the left hand only, I stopped at a certain passage for the fourth and fifth finger, which needed special attention because of the heavy mechanical action of the organ on which I had to play the piece. Afterwards, I called this the James Brown motive, for a reason that will become clear in the below text. I separated it from the phrase and repeated it a number of times, paying full attention to the movements of the fingers and raising the level of awareness of the technical issue. While doing so, it occurred to me that this repeated motive for the left hand might suit some improvisatory figures for the right. In its turn, trying to do so almost immediately evoked a second motive for the left hand which, combined with the first, created a short call and response phrase:

As a further exercise, I alternated this call and response phrase with gradual extensions according to the original phrase C:

The next step was to make a short piece with this material, including a short improvised intro and coda:

In this piece, which I named When Olivier Messiaen meets James Brown for obvious reasons, I kept using the digitalized sound of the French romantic Cavaillé-Coll organ in Caen, built in 1883. A next step was to continue transforming the material using the sound of a German/French baroque instrument: the Silbermann-organ in Arlesheim, built in 1761. Specific sonoric qualities of this instrument led to a piece called Trumpets and Elephants, equally based on using the James Brown motive as a riff played on the second manual, but now using the entire phrases A1/A2, B, C, D, E, F, G, H and I of the original passage by Messiaen, separately on the first and third manual.
Compared to the above version of When Olivier Messiaen meets James Brown there is more room for improvisation. From the beginning till the piece is composed, but from then a improvisatory cadenza leads to the end.

Two pieces ha now been generated from the above mentioned passage from Offrande et Alleluia final. In the second, the left hand kept playing the James Brown motive all the time, in the first the ostinato was interrupted with extensions derived from the phrase the motive was taken from. The second made use of other phrases from the same passage, the first did not. As an exercise, I decided to extend the material for the left hand further in a third version, without using the original material from Messiaen's score in the improvisations for the right. I adapted the piece to the sound of another type of organ, built by Van Dam in 1832, since 1955 situated in the Grote Kerk in Tholen. While creating this third version and due to deliberately playing on the edge of losing control, it occurred to me that an appropriate title for this third version would be All Souls' Day, thereby referring to both the type of music James Brown represented and my Roman Catholic background.


1. The process described above is typical for my daily practice, in which the interpretation of organ pieces from the Western classical repertoire is closely connected to improvisation and composition, solo and with other musicians, possibly coming from other traditions. At the beginning, there was a specific technical issue concerning a piece I was practising for a concert. This led to an improvisatory exercise based on an "invention" (in this case, the James Brown motive) and, step for step, three pieces with my own particular blend of improvisation and composition. These three pieces have a very flexible character and can take a different shape on the spot due to particular qualities of an instrument or, more in general, any needs of the moment. At one moment, mostly when feeling well equipped with the material that I trained, I then transfer the invention to other musicians, giving some hints for possible elaborations, but basically leaving the field open for new developments. In turn, these developments
may be fed back to my solo elaborations and alter them in some way.

2. The integration of interpretation and improvisation/composition even takes place at a deeper level. The archetypal concept of call and response makes the music sound conversational. Keeping this in mind but also -extending the expression- "in body", it also benefits the narrative aspect of my interpretation of, for instance, organ pieces by Bach. It may be argued that there are more traditional sources available to achieve the same, referring to rhetorica for instance, but with me this always remained at a rational level, while the archetypal quality of call and response reaches a deeper, emotional layer. I deliberately relate Bach's and Messiaen's music, considered by many as highlights of "Western art music" (a term which came only in existence in the 19th century), to the supposedly lower art of James Brown. It may also be argued that James Brown never used a 11/8 meter and that his music is in fact very different from my pieces. In reply to this, I would mention that while working with jazz musician Gijs Hendriks on the so-called James Brown motive, he referred to the fact that he started his career as a "time-keeper in rhythm and blues" and that this riff reminded him of those days. Also in working with jazz musician Ruben Verbruggen the term "James Brown piece" evidently communicated well, as he often referred to it in that way. It then becomes clear that the words "James Brown" hint at a certain music which he represents as an Afro-American icon and that the meaning of it goes deeper, suggesting for instance a relation with west African story-tellers (griots).


J.S. Bach - Sonata BWV 529 in C, second movement

The basson-hautbois-trompette of the organ in Arlesheim unites characteristics of three instruments. I like it very much for, for instance, slow movements of trio sonatas: