I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Olivier Messiaen: Heavenly Synaesthesia


by Nicholas Shapiro
Oct. 5, 2012
When you tune into a pop song, your ear is meant to be relaxed on a hammock, invigorated at a party, or sometimes found sulking in its bedroom. Many pop music listeners simply let the song go as they follow along until they can sweetly depart into another tune. The same can be interpreted for any conventional and popular genre of music. When classical music makes its way around and into our ears, our brains tend to scramble for familiarity or a musical hand to hold as its complexity unfolds. That being said: the music of Olivier Messiaen does not walk the same speed, nor on the same planet, as most music listeners are accustomed to.

Olivier Messiaen was a distinctive organist, an ornithologist believing that birds were the “greatest musicians”, and a major composer of the 20th century. A worldly traveler, he drew harmonically and melodically from ancient Greek and Hindu influences as well as finding inspiration in Japanese music, wild landscapes and the life of St. Francis of Assisi. On top of that, he saw colors that were visibly interwoven with rhythms and melodies, otherwise known as synaesthesia. Take all these exotic ingredients and imagine what they would all sound like if they were written as a piece of music in your head. Then turn them upside down. Throw them to the skies. Double everything you hear. Now, you have somewhat prepared yourselves for what Olivier Messiaen’s compositions may sound like.

While influenced by his own synaesthesia, his music sounds as if it came from some kingdom of God if the Almighty had the same condition as Messiaen did. To describe his music from a technical standpoint, one would have to be a devout classical student to completely understand and appreciate what exactly Messiaen does. Here’s a taste of where the French composer comes from:  Modes of limited transposition are musical modes or scales that fulfill specific criteria relating to their symmetry and the repetition of their interval groups. They were compiled by and published in Olivier’s book La technique de mon langage musical ("The Technique of my Musical Language").

Here’s another piece of descriptive jargin from that very book: “Based on our present chromatic system, a tempered system of 12 sounds, these modes are formed of several symmetrical groups, the last note of each group always being common with the first of the following group. At the end of a certain number of chromatic transpositions which varies with each mode, they are no longer transposable, giving exactly the same notes as the first.” Now, if you tossed your laptop into your television after reading that passage and then took that same television and smashed it atop your best sound speakers until it burst into a tornado of flames  that sucked in your favorite headphones along with it, you’re a pop listener now in the realm of classical. If you understood and agreed with the modes of limited transposition, party on.

Olivier Messiaen is as important as he is vital to modern classical music. As an example, he has been featured on NPR as a part of their “Five Modern Classical Pieces for Pop Listeners” list with his piece “Quartet for the End of Time” featured alongside more household names like Steve Reich. This specific piece was composed and performed in jail with fellow inmates when Messiaen was a POW during the 1940 Battle of France. Messiaen, who passed away in 1992, lived a life as colorful as the sounds he saw. For those willing to open up their minds and get comfortable in a generally uncomfortable zone of music, Olivier provides an enriching experience.
My name is Nicholas Craig Shapiro, I'm 22 from New York, New York and I just graduated from SUNY Purchase. I'm currently a janitor/pool attendant/freelance writer/single woman trying really hard to keep busy for on the off chance that I'm not, I will get bored and explode into glitter. I maintain a twitter and that's about it https://twitter.com/glennfeathers