Adapting Messiaen's "Livre du Saint Sacrement" to the needs of a pop audience

On 22 March, 2012 I gave a rather special performance of Messiaen's Livre du Saint Sacrement in the Domkerk in Utrecht. The concert was organized by Rumor Festival of Adventurous Music and the audience would mainly consist of avant-garde pop/rock/jazz/cross-over fans, who would otherwise hardly attend to organ recitals. Rumor asked me to make a selection of the (I quote) "heaviest" pieces with a total duration of about one hour. It was not difficult to understand the request; Livre du Saint Sacrement lasts over two hours and contains many (passages from) movements that might be either too romantic or atonal for non-classical audiences. Messiaen's music is many-sided and it is a fact that his use of the organ's tutti often has a tremendous impact on those who do not primarily listen to classical music. However, I was confronted with an artistic dilemma: one can simply not play tutti pieces for one hour, as any audience would find that too much and fatiguing. In the complete version of the work, Messiaen very efficiently uses the "heavy" movements to support the overall construction, like the walls, pillars and buttresses of a cathedral. I felt that I could not just leave out the non wanted movements and for some weeks I thought of a refined solution, one that would satisfy the need for heavy, powerful music while at the same time providing enough variety, but with other means than Messiaen uses in his score. Finally, it occurred to me that I should make use of my own music at carefully selected points. From past experience, I knew that some of my pieces appeal to the audience concerned, because of a certain light touch and attractive groove that cannot be found in the music of Messiaen (or composers like Berio, Xenakis and Ligeti, for that matter). In particular, I might use material from my organ pieces Birds, drums and signals and Listening to the fairies, which due to their improvisatory character might adapt themselves to the circumstances. If this would work, I could in addition play Messiaen's La joie de la grâce which was on my list to be omitted, because it contained only atonal bird songs and would be too abstract for the audience. My two pieces could on the one hand compensate for this atonality and on the other hand create a triptyque of light pieces within the overall framework of heavy movements! It was a sudden, unexpected discovery and I felt that from an artistic point of view this might solve the problem. Still, I hesitated a few days before taking a decision, as I felt restrained by the weight of convention, that this would be an act of injustice against Messiaen and even Western classical music in general.  Finally, however, I decided to do it, as I was too eager to carry out the experiment and know the result. 

My plan was as follows. To begin with, I would play the first, second and fourth movement of Livre du Saint Sacrement "as usual", i.e. as if the audience would be classical. Then I would insert an improvisation on my composition Birds, drums and signals. After that, Messiaen's seventh movement as usual, but immediately followed by an improvisation on Listening to the fairies, in stead of the habitual long pause. This improvisation would lead to the closing section of the ninth movement, leaving out not only the eighth but a also the larger part of the ninth.This would be the critical moment: I felt that I could not just insert my improvisation and pick up Messiaen' score again as if nothing had happened. There had to be a moment of magic there, the result of a subtle crossfade between the score and my improvisation. The recital would continue with a "regular" tenth and twelfth movement (the latter ending with the only "romantic" passage of the recital, so soft and sweet that the audience would surrender to that). The thirteenth movement also as usual, a terrific representation of the story of the walls of water in the Old Testament, with an archaic power that would be recognized. On the other hand, the fifteenth movement with the transparent bird songs mentioned above should be complete open; I might change Messiaen's notes or order of phrases or even invent something new on the spot, if the circumstances would require that kind of flexibility. The performance should end with Messiaen's formidable eighteenth movement, again as usual, with a force that can hardly be rivaled. 

I did not inform Rumor about my plan and on purpose also not practised the switches between Messiaen and my own music on beforehand; I wanted the improvisations to be as spontaneous as possible. Before the concert, from above near the organ, I watched the audience coming in and got an idea of what kind of music they might prefer; indeed very different from the usual audience in churches. In situations like that, I like to think of magnetic fields of communication, with senders and receivers to transmit. To complete this picture: it was clear that my antenna should remain active during the concert, receive valuable information from the audience and let that affect the performance. Fortunately, a recording was made by Jos van der Linden, the devoted organ fan who also recorded my performance of Messiaen's complete organ works in Haarlem in 1994, issued on CD in 1998 and 2007 respectively. This recording (audio only) can be listened to on YouTube:

Video: Adapting Messiaen's Livre du Saint Sacrement to the needs of a pop audience

The following program with a timetable of the recording may help the reader to understand the above.

1. Messiaen movement one: Adoro te    0'00" - 3'55"
2. Messiaen movement two: La Source de Vie    4'01" - 6'54"
3. Messiaen movement three: Le Dieu caché    7'00'' - 9'26"
4. Tanke improvisation on Birds, drums and signals    9'35" - 11'04"
5. Messiaen movement seven: Les ressuscités et la lumière de vie    11'17" - 15'39"
6. Tanke improvisation on Listening to the fairies    15'48" - 18'13"
8. Messiaen movement ten: La Résurrection du Christ    20'22" - 26'03"
9. Messiaen movement twelve: La Transsubstantiation    26'21" - 33'40"
10. Messiaen movement thirteen: Les deux murailles d'eau    33'48" - 41'28"
11. Messiaen movement fifteen: La joie de la grâce    41'35" - 46'52"
12. Messiaen movement eighteen: Offrande et Alleluia final    47'00" - 55'10"

Relistening to the recording, two and a half years after the performance, I think the experiment succeeded for, let's say, eighty percent. The improvisation on Birds, drums and signals comes at the right moment and lightens the atmosphere whereas in the original score Messiaen begins a new chapter of seriousness that might just be too much in the context concerned. The critical crossfade at number 7 is well-done (therefore I wrote it in capitals). Messiaen's use of the reed with tremolo in the lowest register evokes the darkness after the crucifixion of Jesus, which the larger part of the audience may not have felt in a Christian context at all, but more in terms of a gothic horror. It meets the innocent, even joyful sounds of my fairies, which then calm down, to end with Messiaen's low cluster, as a voice from the earth, which I intensified to the maximum to deepen the effect. However, I am not quite satisfied about number 11: a next time I would probably interpolate Messiaen's bird songs with material from my former improvisations or even something completely new. As a result the switches/cross-fades between Messiaen's and my own music might be better balanced regarding the construction of the concert as a whole. To judge my criticism, the reader would have to listen to the recording from beginning till end and without interruption. 

A few days after the concert, which was very well received, I had to smile while reading  a review which referred to "Messiaen's pop beats". Evidently, the author had mistaken my music as a part of the score!


Five aspects of my musicianship: Bach/Messiaen/Indian influence 1&2/Avant-garde jazz

I always found it difficult to explain the diversity of my musical activities, varying from, for instance Max Reger to avant-garde jazz, although they were naturally connected, without any problem, in my daily practice. This kind of diversity does not at all suite the reality of musical life, which asks for a clear way to label artists. Perhaps this will change some day.

Anyway, I think I found a rather coherent way now of describing and explaining the variety, supported by the above video, as follows.

From when I was a student, I based my ideal of playing the organ on observations on Bach's organ playing made by contemporaries of his. These observations all point in the same direction: that Bach was able to achieve a maximum of expression with a minimum of movements of hands and feet. Achieving more by doing less became a guideline for my daily practice and I recorded Messiaen's complete organ works and Reger's monumental Variationen und Fuge über ein Originalthema op. 72 in this spirit.

Between 2003 and 2006, as a professor at Rotterdam Conservatoire, I carried out a research based on this approach and called it The Art of Doing Nothing. Soon, associations with Taoism and Buddhism made me consider the idea also on a spiritual level, as a way of submitting the ego and transmitting music from a supernatural source to audiences. Looking back and staying at the level of craftsmanship, I nowadays prefer to speak of The art of playing with relaxed precision.

Any ideal based on Bach is likely to require profound studies and in my case it concerns evidently a life project. Moreover, when I started to play the piano seriously, at the end of the '90s, I decided not to take lessons, but to become my own teacher and use my expertise as an organist. From the very start, it was clear that I should not play pieces from the repertoire, whether classical or jazz, but create my own exercises. Almost invariably, these exercises concentrate on a certain musical idea (an invention) which is generated by improvisation. An exercise may evolve into a composition, which in its turn may be a starting-point for new improvisations etc. Consequently, improvisation, interpretation and composition are parts of a cycle which is constantly repeated, as the heart beat of my daily practice.

Stylistically, my exercises soon left the field of Western classical music and moved towards avant-garde jazz and music from the East and Africa. However, as an improvising and composing pianist I remained faithful to my ideal of organ playing, to achieve a powerful expression with small movements only. In addition, the independence of left and right hand obtained through intense studies of organ works by Bach now greatly benefits my skill to play rhythmic melodic patterns with one hand, while improvising with the other.

Besides J.S. Bach, my musical language is largely influenced by Olivier Messiaen. Memorizing his organ works in the past more than thirty years now allows me to transform his rhythms, melodies and harmonies and use them in new contexts, such as avant-garde jazz.