First performance of Olivier Messiaen and the Cave of Forgotten Dreams at the Stevenskerk in Nijmegen on July 4th , 2017

Olivier Messiaen and the Cave of Forgotten Sounds

In the spring of 2017 I saw the documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams by Werner Herzog, about the prehistoric Chauvet cave in the Ardèche in the South of France, which was discovered in 1994. Besides prehistoric paintings on the walls an approximately 30.000 year old flute was shown, made of the bone of a vulture and tuned according to the pentatonic system which characterises modality throughout the ages and everywhere in the world. After watching the documentary I had a view of a prehistoric flutist and Olivier Messiaen together imitating a bird, the flutist on his instrument and Messiaen while composing on paper. When the bird flew away, the flutist and Messiaen stopped their work and looked at each other, with a smile of satisfaction and happiness.

This image I used to continue a dialogue with Messiaen which I had started at the Domkerk in Utrecht (the Netherlands) in 2012. I gave a performance of a number of movements from Livre du Saint Sacrement then, alternating with improvisations adapted to the taste of an audience consisting of avant-pop and avant-jazz aficionados. If the dialogue at the time was rather superficial, now —five years later— it has become far more intense, a real encounter now of Messiaen music and my own, deeply rooted as the latter is in timeless modal music of Europe, North-Africa and Asia. As a motto I chose a quote from Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (1951):

"St Augustine asked where time came from. He said it came out of the future which didn't exist yet, into the present that had no duration, and went into the past which had ceased to exist. I don't know that we can understand time any better than a child."

Olivier Messiaen completed Livre du Saint Sacrement , his last and most voluminous organ work, in 1984, only one year after the opera Saint François d’Assise. Messiaen succeeded in making a synthesis of the great variety of musical aspects that had preoccupied him ever since he started to compose, like gregorian chant and bird song. For Olivier Messiaen and the Cave of Forgotten Sounds  a choice has been made of movements from Livre du Saint Sacrement, mentioned in the programme with the original French title, and my own improvisations and compositions, which always have an English title. 

Program notes

Olivier Messiaen and the Cave of Forgotten Sounds  

First part

1. Invocation

Here the listener is asked to use the force of imagination to go a few steps back in time:

1. to the 9th century, in which gregorian chant became the starting-point for Western classical music and the organ established itself as a church instrument.
2. to the 3rd century BC, in which the oldest pipe organ of the world was invented, probably by Ctesibius of Alexndria: the water organ. This instrument was among other things used to imitate bird song and would spread itself in particular over North-Africa, Southern Europe and Asia. 
3. 30.000 years ago, when the flute that was found in the Chauvet cave, a far ancestor of the water organ, was made. 

2. Adoro te

For this slow, solemn movement Messiaen was inspired by Thomas Aquinas adoration of the hidden divinity. From when I studied this piece, in the late ‘80s, it made me think of the statue of a black madonna I had once seen in the basilica Notre-Dame de la Daurade in Toulouse. This statue seemed to represent a primeval power, like an African fertility goddess. 

3. Improvisation on a North-African rhythm

Starting-point is a rhythmic cycle consisting of 11 beats, subdivided as 2+2+3+2+2. This is combined with a modal melody for the left hand which becomes longer in the course of the piece. The right hand improvises while the pedal thickens the texture with more sustained notes.

4. La Source de Vie

 Messiaens reflection on the thirst after the source of life and eternal light, given by the Holy Sacrament. 

5. Duet for the left hand from ‘L’Ange aux parfums’ and a quasi ostinato for the right hand

I am intrigued by the two duets from Messiaen’s L’Ange aux parfums (from: Les Corps glorieux), not in the least because I spent a symbolic thousand hours to study them. Written in 1939 they are still unique in the literature for keyboard instruments. In this movement I play the left hand part similar to the first duet, but replace the right hand part by a variable ostinato in what I call ‘African style’. 

6. Acte de Foi

Messiaen’s act of faith is a whirling toccata in which the tension built up in the preceding contemplative movements finds its way out. 

7. Listening to the fairies

I already used this composition at the Domkerk in Utrecht in 2012, because of the contrast with Messiaen’s massive sound blocks. It refers to childlike innocence as a source of vitality and well-being.

8. Final passage from ‘Les ténèbres’

While the fairies gradually disappear the macabre sound of a malevolent creature from the abyss is heard. It is the moment after Jesus’ death, followed by a low, chromatic cluster with tremolo that represents the darkness in the middle of the day.

9. La Résurrection du Christ

This depiction of the resurrection of Christ is one of Messiaen most overwhelming pieces, where words fail.

INTERVAL of about 60 seconds in which the audience stays to their seats

Second part 

10. Stillness

This composition was written in 1996 and is dedicated to my father, who died in that same year. The piece expresses an emptiness that is nevertheless full of concentration. In 2017 I had a vision that referred to my ancestors who during many centuries were labourers in the fields or peasants with a small piece of ground in Twente, a region in the east of Holland, bordering Germany: 

Springtime. At the end of a hard day’s work a farm worker is resting a while before going home. He is leaning against a tree, his face in the late afternoon sun and his thoughts nowhere. Suddenly and for a very short time he sees Eternity. Some years later it happens again and after that never more. But the longing for it encourages him during the rest of his life and strengthens him at the hour of death.

Stillness is so simple that I do not feel any relation to Western classical music, including that of Arvo Pärt. It consists as it were of forgotten sounds which I happened to find again somewhere.

11. The Loop Man # Ardha Jai Taal 

"The Loop Man" is a nickname which Mike Garson gave me because of the many rhythmic-melodic patterns that I wrote for in particular the left hand. By frequent repetitions these patterns function as a "groove" or "loop”. They are particularly suitable for cross-overs between genres of music. The loop in this piece is 6.5 beats, following the example of Ardha Jai Taal, a rhythmic pattern from Indian music.

12. Les deux murailles d’eau

Messiaen’s depiction of the walls of water when the Jewish people cross the Red Sea escaping from Egypt is unparalleled in organ literature and leaves the listener in sheer bewilderment. 

13. In memoriam Claire Delbos

This improvisation is dedicated to Messiaen’s first wife, who lived from 1906 until 1959 and spent the last fifteen years of her life in a tragic way at a psychiatric institution. 

14. Final passage from ‘La Transsubstantiation’

This is the result of the preceding improvisation and combines sadness with mysticism.

15. Along Ley Lines

Supposedly ley lines are channels of energy in the earth on which since the prehistoric age sanctuaries and other special constructions have been built. They are also said to be used by wise men and spiritual leaders, like Merlin, to communicate with each other before technology provided other means to mankind. 

16. Offrande et Alleluia final  with adaptation of the final bar

The passage at the beginning is a reference to this characteristic timbre in Invocation. It is followed by a triumphant toccata which surpasses the preceding one (Acte de Foi) in intensity, as an ode to life. Messiaen’s composition is interrupted once by an improvisatory passage depicting hunted, panicking elephants, loudly trumpeting as if to accuse mankind for what it does to creation. At the end, seven mighty chords like granite separated by rests perhaps symbolise the seven syllables of Livre du Saint Sacrement (I speak them loudly while playing). Messiaen’s final bar is put into a loop, with a diminuendo that allows the listener to return slowly to the present.


The technique of playing with independent hands in The Loop Man # 17+12 and Bach

“The Loop Man” is a nickname which Mike Garson gave me because of my ability to repeat rhythmic-melodic patterns with one hand and improvise on it with the other. A highly developed independence of hands is needed for this. The series The Loop Man # (indication of rhythmic cycle) consists of etudes to train this independence. The Loop Man # 17+12 on this video is dedicated to Mike Garson in admiration and friendship. It is a reflection on modal music from East-Asia. I made this video to draw the attention of the countless young pianists and other keyboard players in East-Asia and other parts of the world to the possibility of studying the technique of independent hands (and possibly feet) with me at Codarts, University of the Arts, Rotterdam, with the help of pieces by Bach, another specialism of mine (besides Messiaen and Reger). Apart from Western classical music, you can also study Indian classical music, Turkish music, jazz, pop,flamenco, tango and latin at Codarts.


Hommage to Cecil Taylor: spontaneous improvisation on the piano using a relatively exuberant body language

I often refer to my way of playing the organ as "the art of playing with relaxed precision", as I am generally very calm and economical. In August 2016, however,  it happened to me to improvise on the piano and spontaneously use a by my standards rather exuberant body language. I felt inspired by Cecil Taylor and accordingly gave the improvisation a title.

My Spiritual Truth

On 27th April, 2017 it will be 25 years ago that Olivier Messiaen died. My main contribution to activities commemorating his death will be to refer to what in my opinion is the essence of his music. This is related to Messiaen’s sincere dedication to God on the one hand and his struggle with Evil on the other. I experienced both sides in the most intense way. The passion with which I played his music during nearly four decades at one moment caused me to believe that his demons had entered my body and soul. It drove me to insanity and almost to death. Then through what I call a miracle I managed to master the demons and transform bad into good energy, using creativity, spiritual force and imagination. I now have the strength  to transmit this positive energy to audiences and younger musicians. That is the most important thing I learned from Messiaen's music. 

The archetypal function of the artist is to receive creative energy and transmit it to society in the shape of art as a metaphor for life. In a very pure way this is shown in Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), about the oldest known pictorial creations of humankind inside the Chauvet caves of Southern France. As a musician I became aware of the artist’s role in 2009, after reading Bruno Nettl’s article Thoughts on improvisation (1974), in which he points out that Pima Indians in Arizona consider music making as receiving, unraveling and transmitting energy from a supernatural world, thereby hardly making any difference between performing, improvising and composing. Dramatic events in my life after 2009 made me look at this process as a choice you make regarding a path you follow: in the worst case the path leads to Evil, in the best case to God. By far the majority of artists dwell somewhere in the infinity of grey zones between God and Evil, which can be a very reasonable and acceptable compromise, as not anyone can handle the full intensity of God. Any form of addiction, like drugs, alcohol, money, sex, power, but also knowledge and one’s own talent and skills, will eventually lead to the sinister, left side of the spectrum. Many famous musicians —certainly not only with a jazz or pop background— ended up there. This does not make their artistic achievements less important or admirable, as these live on independently of the life of the artist, who is only the transmitter. 

Playing Bach is about the purest path that I can imagine to reach God. The energy coming from there is 100 % good. Playing Messiaen is different: the message that he sends in all his compositions should be taken very literally: as a struggle between Good and Evil or Life and Death. Consequently, I play a piece like Dieu parmi nous (“God among us”, from La Nativité du Seigneur, 1935) like St. Michael fighting the dragon.

Having reached this level of reflection and performance, I could finally liberate myself from Messiaen's ego-evil energy that I had absorbed through my passion for his music. By filtering out the bad vibrations I am able now to receive and transmit his music with the same purity and transparence that I find in Bach. After this struggle I had a vision related to a piece which I composed in 1996, when my father died. It refers to my ancestors who during many centuries were labourers in the fields or peasants with a small piece of ground in Twente, a region in the east of Holland, bordering Germany:

Springtime. At the end of a hard day’s work a farm worker is resting a while before going home. He is leaning against a tree, his face in the late afternoon sun and his thoughts nowhere. Suddenly and for a very short time he sees Eternity. Some years later it happens again and after that never more. But the longing for it encourages him during the rest of his life and strengthens him at the hour of death. 

This a version of Stillness with a very sensitive performance by violinist Michalis Kouloumis: 

In October 2016, I gave a Bach recital at Oratoire Saint Joseph in Montreal, Canada. I bought a booklet with prayers to Saint Joseph there, which I am learning to speak in French now. One of them is: 

Saint Joseph nous est proposé comme un modèle de transparence et de pureté. Jésus disait: "Heureux les coeurs purs, ils verront Dieu". Saint Joseph nous apprend à renoncer à l'égoisme et à donner le meilleur de nous-mêmes.

I also bought a candle with the image of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American Saint in the United States of America and Canada.

My friend the Indian, which like Stillness I wrote shortly after my father died in 1996, is now dedicated to Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. 

Purifying musicianship with the help of God, Saint Joseph, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Saint André of Montreal, Bach, Messiaen and my pieces Stillness and My friend the Indian are symbolised in my project The Enchanted Desert

Adding this spiritual dimension to Bach interpretation is represented on my YouTube-playlist My New Soulful Way of Playing Bach


Henri Rousseau and the source of creativity

This week I saw a fascinating documentary on the painter Henri Rousseau, who was nicknamed "Le Doaunier". During his life he was often ridiculised by critics for a lack of traditional education and craftsmanship. Some of them said that his paintings were not any better than the work of a child. Only a number of contemporary artists, among others Picasso and Delaunay, saw this true talent and considered him as a father figure of modern art.

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The overall feeling I had after watching the documentary was that Rousseau was at the very source of creativity, connected to it by purity, naivety and the power of his imagination. It helps me to further improve my Bach-interpretation and create my own music, which is occasionally as naive as the art of Rousseau, for instance in Stillness and My friend the Indian. 

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In the documentary Rousseau's art was compared to "art symbolique" in Roman churches and "primitive" art from Africa, shown at the world exposition in Paris in 1889 (famous in music history because Debussy heard gamelan music from Indonesia there for the first time). These examples of Roman and African art gave me the same feeling of being "at the source of creativity". When I played with African musicians in the late '90s, I used to have that feeling also, because of their naive and spontaneous attitude. Similar to creating my own music, there did not seem to be any obstacle. Regarding the interpretation of organ works by Bach, however, I have always been longing for this quality, never knowing where to find it precisely. Jan Welmers made a very important remark once, which kept me thinking for a long time, about Bach making complex constructions with simple material (I remember him singing the theme of the F major invention there). This and the examples of Henri Rousseau, Roman and African artists and my own music make me feel now like being one step closer to the source.