Classical Music Break — Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony

I’m an unabashed fan of classical music. While my tastes tend to run towards pieces with a hummable tune — meaning I stick largely to the 18th and 19th century repertoires — there is some 20th century “modern” classical music which I actually enjoy. I suppose that Mozart and Beethoven need no hard-sell among my readership, so I’ll take the time here to dwell on something a little more niche.

Browsing a used record shop the other day led to some internet browsing, and I came across this recording of Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony (composed in the late 1940s). It’s a PBS-style televised broadcast by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under Myung-Whun Chung, recorded in 2008. God bless YouTube, because merely listening to the audio of this recording won’t do it justice. The camera handling and editing is what sets it apart; it’s clearly the work of a frustrated Hitchcock whose talents are going to waste recording classical concerts for the state broadcaster in France. This guy should go to Hollywood; the visual drama of this is unlike any classical music TV broadcast I’ve ever seen. There’s a hint of La Jetee here, and look out for the Thomas Crown Affair split-screen moments. And I mean all this as a compliment. Without the visuals I’m not sure I would have found the piece a worthwhile listen.

To watch, click on the link, as I’m too computer illiterate to insert an embedded YouTube media box.

The music has that clashing, clangorous, vaguely sci-fi (thanks to the ondes Martenot — an early form of electric synthesizer) and mid-century feel to it. It has the sort of sound you’d associate with movies and TV shows of the 1950s and 1960s — a whiff of the original James Bond theme, or the Mission Impossible title music. Of course, in movies and TV you’d get only a minute or two of this at a time, or a diluted version with enough harmonics and jazz to keep it palatable; here you have a solid uninterrupted hour and twenty minutes of the stuff, stiff and straight-up. Not everyone’s cup of tea. Yet the visual editing is a hoot, so I vote this a keeper.

At the risk of sounding a little bit like a Cultural Marxist, I’ll speculate for a moment as to what is going on here, and why.

By the middle of the 20th century, the enjoyable arts, as I’d call them, had largely migrated out of the galleries, cathedrals and concert halls — into television, movie theaters, radio broadcasts, record shops, magazines… even (especially?) into advertising and throwaway ephemera. Technology made this possible. The average man doesn’t need to finagle his way into the Sistene Chapel to view a breath-taking display of color and iconic imagery; he can get that in a coffee table picture book, or in some magazine, or even on a billboard on the side of the road. In Michelangelo’s time, this wasn’t possible. In Beethoven’s time you had to show up and endure to hear some Beethoven; you didn’t fire up the turntable for 20 minutes in the comfort of your own living room. Similarly, an important man doesn’t need Rembrandt to paint his portrait any more, when Yousuf Karsh can do the job photographically in a tenth of the time — and any middle-class householder could get something nearly as good at Sears (at least until the Sears portrait studio business went bust a few years back). And the talent has followed the audience: Patrick Stewart might have started off as a Shakespearean stage actor, yet he leapt at the chance to do television and movie work, and that’s how most of us know him.

Sistene Chapel Last Judgment
Michelangelo’s Last Judgment — fresco on the wall of the Sistene Chapel. Notice the azure sky, delicate white clouds and dramatic foreground action, as well as the commanding central figure with the yellow-gold halo.
Marlboro Billboard — on a roadside somewhere in Canada, I think. Notice the azure sky, delicate white clouds, and dramatic foreground action.


Marlboro Man in a magazine ad — like Jesus Christ, only manlier. Notice the dramatic foreground action, as well as the commanding central figure with the yellow-gold halo.


Yes, despite technology there is some residual attraction in the authentic or the immediate. Watching a football game on television is vastly different than watching it live in a stadium with 79,999 other screaming fans. Listening to Bruce Springsteen on the car radio is not the same as attending a concert in person on one of his interminable world tours. Live theater is still a living art form. There is something extra there, to be sure, and lots of people pay good money for it. But the fact remains that most people take in most of their visual arts — and drama and music and sports — through technologically-assisted reproductions and broadcasts.

Which brings me to my point: The average listener is not supposed to enjoy an hour and twenty minutes of Messiaen’s music straight up, or at least not in the same lyrical and melodic easy-listening way that he enjoys Frank Sinatra on the radio, or a Beatles album fresh from the record shop, or, for that matter, Beethoven’s Fifth. This kind of modern music is more than a little “inside baseball” — it’s by the experts, for the experts. Symphony Hall has become a development lab and experimentation zone, not just a mass entertainment venue. This sort of modern classical composition sets forth, at length, innovative musical forms which professionals can sample and re-use when generating enjoyable art fit for public consumption. It’s a sound library as much as it is anything else. No sane layman downloads an hour-long string of sound effect clips and listens to it straight through for the sake of amusement, let alone gets dressed up and goes to the concert hall for it. But a radio show technician had better be familiar with a whole library of sound effect clips if he wants to be good at his job. Similarly, John Williams benefits from a range of 20th century classical influences, even while keeping his Star Wars scores more accessible than the average piece of Stravinsky. Buy some popcorn; leave that hour-long 12-tone stuff to the professionals.

Back when classical music had to entertain, composers knew they had to impose strict limits on their public experiments in order to continue to earn a living. That’s why Mozart’s Dissonance Quartet (K.465), written in 18th century Vienna, opens with precisely 89 seconds — no more, no less — of mind-bending 12-tone composition that sounds like Shostakovitch (a 20th century Russian) got in a time machine. If Mozart went on like that any longer he would have been out of work and in a bread line.

There’s more to it than that, of course. Some people do truly enjoy (some) modern music in the sense of actually listening to it for pleasure. For me, the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Philip Glass, as an example, falls into this category. I’d buy the record, or pay good money to see it live. It’s startlingly innovative and grippingly enjoyable, while at the same time his music is an obvious resource for the cinema.

Modern art serves additional purposes as well. For some, impenetrable modern art is something between a shibboleth and the emperor’s new clothes. It’s something that silly fancy rich people pretend to understand and enjoy and appreciate, and on which they actually do spend enormous sums of money, in order to prove their cultural superiority and the size of their manhood — I mean bank account — in a socially acceptable way to other silly fancy rich people.  All the while hoping that nobody points out that the so-called overhyped “art” is certainly unenjoyable and is very likely to be intellectual bunkum. I don’t have much patience for that, but nobody put me in charge of the rich people.

So sit back and enjoy the recording of Messiaen. And let me know if the solo pianist doesn’t remind you a just little bit of Humphrey Bogart in the Maltese Falcon… but balder, of course.

Bogart - Maltese Falcon 2
Humphrey Bogart in the Maltese Falcon

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