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Olivier Messiaen and the Cave of Forgotten Sounds

Overwhelming experience

(Henk ten Holt, Ugenda, July 6th, 2017)

"Whoever attends this concert will be left flabbergasted, exalted (in the sense of feeling elevated), moved, and in any case unsettled, and afterward, remaining silent for a long time. The music has an indescribable force which overwhelms the listener. The word "violence" could be appropriate, but without negative connotations; the music is not only heavy but also lovely, consoling, and even touching. One concert attendee said, "Resisting is impossible". Another, while leaving fifteen minutes afterward, "I am still not back on Earth". The musical dialogue between Messiaen and Tanke is a radical mental and spiritual experience which, at the same time, touches you very physically. Descriptive words fail and it may sound very strange, but, while listening, I felt enclosed by a very tight time travel capsule, which forced my body to stretch and become rigid. I cast my eyes higher and higher, from the floor to the pews and the walls and, finally I gazed through the bowed windows of the church directly into, what appeared at that moment to be, uniform, grey eternity."

There are two versions of Olivier Messiaen and the Cave of Forgotten Sounds: a long version, with two parts, an optional interval and a duration of about 85 minutes and a short version, which lasts about 58 minutes.

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 imagined a prehistoric flautist and Olivier Messiaen imitating a bird together, the flautist on his instrument and Messiaen while composing on paper. When the bird flew away, the flautist 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 Alexandria: 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 and which I associated with ancient wisdom and primeval force.

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 of Olivier Messiaen and the flutist of the Chauvet cave

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’. 

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's 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. The Bleu and the Green Lake - 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. In Messiaen's world Claire Delbos represents tolerance, forgivingness and magnanimity to me, in a way that can be universally understood. 

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 improvisations)


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.