Making music as rhythming the refrain and becoming-bird

As I embark on listening to the twenty-piece, two-hour solo piano cycle, Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (1944) by Olivier Messiaen (1908-92), I start with the opening     glance/gaze/contemplation, the one from the perspective of the father, Regard du Père.

I try to focus on the “Theme of God,” which permeates the entire cycle, culminating in its conclusion, Regard de l’Église d’amour.  It is a simple chordal passage characterized by the rhythmic pattern short-short-short-long-long rhythm cast in F-sharp major with chromatic passing tones.  The absorbing, continuously repeating notes keep pulsating until the work ends with a stop over its last note.  But during the piece, I get distracted by snippets of birdsongs that interrupt, or comment on, the development of the theme.  I do not even know whether I am hearing actual birdsongs that Messiaen claims to have put there or, hyper-conscious as I am of the ornithological aura of the composer’s reputation, I am just imagining them.

This kind of listening raises the question of mimesis associated with the scandal of Messiaen’s place in music history.  In the midst of the Modernist iconoclastic fury, while radical classical music was shedding its last vestiges of representation and paving the way from the Second Viennese School to the Darmstadt School, there was a composer with an explicitly mimetic, programmatic, naturalistic, synaesthetic, and Catholic approach experimenting in bold ways and affecting the next avant-garde generation.  What was so radical about recording and reproducing birdsongs?  Their flights in the Regards cycle, which preceded the cluster of the Oiseaux series (1953-60) by ten years, make the question even more intriguing.

I consult Messiaen’s greatest listener, Gilles Deleuze, starting with the section “Becoming-Music” which concludes the plateau no. 10, “1730:  Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible…”.  “A bird launches into its refrain” (Deleuze & Guattari: One Thousand Plateaus [1980], p. 300).  By doing so it stakes out a territory and opens it to the cosmos at large.  Territorialization through birdsong happens in a particular kind of time:  Claiming a territory involves beating a pulsed time, a refrain.  Next comes the musical treatment of this bird refrain which “uproots the refrain from its territoriality.  Music is a creative, active operation that consists in deterritorializing the refrain.  Whereas the refrain is essentially territorial, … music makes it a deterritorialized content for a deterritorializing form of expression” (300).

Instead of imitating the song of the bird, music de-natures and musicalizes it.  “On Deleuze’s view, the ‘composition of diverse forces’ … can only in fact mean a continuous uncomposed and imminently dissolving tension between the pull towards territory, on the one hand, and the urge towards pure self-differentiation, the glissando of continuous variation, on the other” (Catherine Pickstock: “Messiaen and Deleuze:  The Musico-theological critique of Modernism and Postmodernism,” Theory, Culture & Society 25:7-8, 2008, p. 190).

The process through which music deterritorializes a refrain is one of becoming, such as “becoming-animal.”  Deleuze regards this process as “paradigmatic of the creative process of all composers.  Music is the deterritorialization of the refrain” of the territorial songs of birds (Ronald Bogue: “Rhizomusicosmology,” SubStance 66, 1991, p. 96).  Deleuze proposes: “All of music is pervaded by bird songs, in a thousand different ways, from Jannequin to Messiaen.  Frr, Frr” (Plateaus 300).  Great composers deterritorialize the refrain by questioning conventions and invent “a kind of diagonal running between the harmonic vertical and the melodic horizon” (296).

Messiaen’s use of birdsong produces a deterritorialization through which “the bird becomes something other than music, at the same time that the music becomes bird” (Deleuze: “Vincennes Seminar Session, May 3, 1977: On Music,” Discourse 20:3, Fall 1998, pp. 210-11).   “Becoming is never imitating” (Plateaus 305).  It is not figurative or representational.  “Messiaen’s nature [physis] is a question of technique, if technique is understood in the Greek sense of techne” (Sander van Maas: “Messiaen, Deleuze, and the Birds of Proclamation,” in Chapin & Clark, eds.:  Speaking of Music:  Addressing the Sonorous, 2013, p.179).  In deterritorializing the territorial songs of birds, Messiaen’s goal is not to represent them but “to articulate a ‘timeless time’ – ametrical, nonteleological, reversible and unlimited.  As one can readily see, that time is … the elusive, fluctuating time of ‘becoming’” (Bogue 95).  The dynamic interaction between music and cosmos discloses both “to be open systems of difference engaged in a process of mutual becoming” (98).  Composition rhythms the refrain by differing its repetition.

Deleuze’s plateau no. 11, “1837: Of the Refrain,” offers “a means of construing music as an open structure that permeates and is permeated by the world, a reading of the cosmos and music not as mechanical and mathematical but as machinic and rhythmical – … a ‘rhizomusicosmology.’  Chief among those who inspire Deleuze and Guattari in this enterprise is Olivier Messiaen, whose remarks on rhythm and birdsong provide several of the key concepts” of this plateau.  One Thousand Plateaus and “the musical and theoretical works of Messiaen mutually illuminate one another” (85).

Many composers had used birdsong before but Messiaen was the first to craft it as musical notation.  Traces of birdsong appear regularly in his work from 1932 until his opera Saint François d’Assise (1975-83).  Messiaen was a member of the musical group Jeune France which burst upon the scene in 1936, seeking an alternative cultural force – a progressive spiritual expression.  “Messiaen reflected the non-conformists’ search for a spiritual expression of man’s essence, free of the established collectivities of race, nation, generation, or religion” (Jane F. Fulcher: “The Politics of Transcendence:  Ideology in the Music of Messiaen in the 1930s,” The Musical Quarterly 86:3, Fall 2002, 465).  This ecumenical orientation led to his highly eclectic global musical interests.  The idea of what Deleuze would call “becoming-bird” gave them counter-mimetic cohesion and phonolatric intensity.

Messiaen called himself a “rythmicien”/rhythmatician who treated “rhythm as non-identical repetition” (Pickstock 182).  His cosmic view did not posit a physis-techne opposition but rather a meter-rhythm distinction. Inspired by Messiaen, the master of the non-return repeat, Deleuze “worked with multiple variations on what is repeated (the refrain that territorializes, the dogmatic meter) and what differs from the repeated (the different that decenters, the critical rhythm)” (“The Fate of the Repeat in Music”).  Messiaen and Deleuze converged on a Bergsonian “hyper-Baroque” (191) domain where they experimented with immanence.

The 1940s bequeathed to classical music the dilemma “Adorno or Messiaen” (Peter Bannister: “The Offence of Beauty in Modern Western Art Music,” Religions 4, 2013, p. 698).  However, as the Adornian prohibitions, proclaimed in the Philosophy of Modern Music (1948), lose their grip on creativity, the question has been fading away.  Messiaen’s creative project unfolded entirely outside mimetic concerns.  His “blending of the thematic of ‘difference’ or continuous permutation with a [mystical] Thomistic metaphysics of eternity and [immanentist Bergsonist] time … overcame the purist ‘Kantianism’ of musical modernism” (Pickstock 186).  Today it invites an equally energetic participation that is not listening for or against anything.

As I harken to Regard du Père one more time, I begin to hear on the piano the thumb and the little finger of the right hand of Pantelis Polychronidis, and I realize that, rather than re-presenting, mimesis presents:  My other self is present here with me, conjuring up bars, birds, bells, and blessings.

17 January 2020

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