Confession: I’ve never quite understood Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus. ¹
Granted, I know the basic premise of the series, and I’ve even performed X. Regard de l’Esprit de joie. But I’ve never wholly grasped the nuances and personal effects of the piece, let alone formed a coherent interpretation surrounding it.
After emerging from a physically exhausting but mentally stimulating lesson, I realized what I had been missing. Messiaen doesn’t have Schönberg’s twelve-tone character, and he isn’t quite aligned with the mathematical dissonance of Ives. His music is borderline instinctual. Like a naturally deformed tree, or an oddly patterned pelt, his harmonies are full of weird octatonic progressions, diluted chords, diminished intervals, as if it were all written down in a hurry to keep up with some fleeting moment. His rhythmical patterns are often jerky or syncopated, resembling pyrrhic dances and ritualistic movements. They’re dotted with uneven accents, and yet somehow, they work. Throughout the Vingt Regards, Messiaen also re-introduces transcendent themes such as the “Thème de Dieu,” “Thème de l’amour mystique,” and “Thème de l’étoile et de la croix.” I find that these sections inspire all types of sounds and images: birds, bells, taiko drums, untethered emotions, vivid colors. ²
Playing these pieces is utterly mind-boggling and soul-consuming. ³
Perhaps I’ve been looking at them through conventional lenses. They aren’t meant to be as structured as a Bach fugue or as euphonic as a Chopin nocturne or as mysterious as a Debussy prelude. They’re of a more primitive and encompassing state — amalgamations and concoctions of sounds and effects to create a set of feelings that require music instead of music that requires feelings. The title says it all: twenty “reflections” or “contemplations” on the infant Jesus. Some of these reflections are half-formed thoughts; others are hauntingly beautiful melodies, rhythmic crazes, and breathless bursts of energy (cue the rumbling bass of Par Lui tout a été fait). Maybe they aren’t meant to be understood fully — maybe a part of these pieces will always reside in some incomprehensible spirit.
¹ In all likelihood, this will not be the only time I write about these pieces. They are much too complex and intriguing to be digested in one sitting.
² In addition to being a composer, Messiaen was an ornithologist. Plus, he supposedly had synesthesia?
³ Technical reminder: my teacher brought up a neat comparison using the ever-awe-inspiring Bruce Lee: some touches (i.e. the way a phrase/note is physically played) have the reflexes of lightning, some are more like the flow of water. The trick is knowing how to manipulate your joints into acting as one entity rather than controlling your fingers alone.