Friday, January 5, 2018

L' Ascension

French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1922) wrote music that I can't listen too. Dissonant...confusing...abstract. Experts will say he is a genius, that this music that goes over my head is "beautiful art." I have tried to delve into much of it, only to be repulsed by it. I like to think I have a very open mind. But I kept trying and failing to embrace his work. Then I found L' Ascension for Organ  Turns out he wrote some music that I do like. I happened upon L'Ascension for Organ (1932-33) about a year ago. I keep coming back to it on a regular basis, never tiring of it. It moves me deeply. Messiaen IS a great composer.
This work has four movements. The first can best be described as "phrase...phrase...phrase...minor key, minor key, minor key, mysterious idea, mysterious idea.....then major powerchord. Repeat. It leaves me breathless.
If you want to really learn more than you can ever understand about any music, Google "whatever piece you are interested in, PDF and in this case...L'Ascension, PDF, Analysis." Somewhere out there, a student has written a dissertation about it that takes a deep dive into explaining everything about it musically. Robert Edwin Fort Jr. did so in 1956 for L' Ascension. 128 pages that analyze every aspect of this work, every chord, every phrase etc.....way more than I can understand or appreciate. But Mr. Fort and I are on the same page....we love this music.
Fort states, "Messiaen's music generally has a feeling of almost total monotony, but this is accompanied by much activity within the total feeling." He follows this up by stating, "Because of it's special place and purpose, L' Ascension is one of the least formidable of Messiaen's compositions. Although it is not the most typical of Messiaen's work, it provides the newcomer a pleasant approach that is colorful, figurative, evocative, easily accepted, and readily understood."  Amen. I agree.
First movement, lots of major powerchords a la Pete Townshend or Jimmy Page. Second movement, bat shit noodling all over the place. Third movement, transcendental chromaticism (May not be a word). Fourth movement, the best chord to end any piece in history. As Fort states, "The final chord comes as the culmination of the rising movement in melody and accompaniment. It results in a feeling of relaxed tension somewhat like the similar chord in measure no. 2. However, it is held for thirteen beats and is the final chord of the movement and the suite. The length of it coupled with the fact that there is no diminishing of volume (a crescendo is called for in the orchestration) soon imparts a somewhat active feeling to it. This is further enhanced by the inversion. The final effect then is one of incompletion of suspension which is obviously what the composer had in mind." It is very cool.
Here is a nice version of L' Ascension for Organ:

And here is the orchestrated version:

I like both, but the organ version is my favorite. Enjoy!

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