Monday, January 7, 2013

Quartet for the End of Time

Time's a resource. Spend it or lose it.

The story of the composition of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time is well-chronicled, but the key points compel a rehash. He was a prisoner of the Nazis in WWII, and used the resources available to him, because composing is what this guy did. A clarinet, cello, violin, and piano were there, so he wrote this piece for that. The titular End of Time certainly has an apocalyptic ring, no? I guess if the Nazis held you in a camp you'd be feeling pretty apocalyptic. But I'm striving and childishly stammering. I'll just quote at length from the preface to the score:

I saw a mighty angel descending from heaven, clad in mist, having around his head a rainbow. His face was like the sun, his feet like pillars of fire. He placed is right foot on the sea, his left on the earth, and standing thus on the sea and the earth he lifted his hand toward heaven and swore by Him who liveth for ever and ever, saying: "There shall be time no longer, but at the day of the trumpet of the seventh angel the mystery of God shall be consummated."
--Revelation, X

Conceived and written in the course of my captivity, the Quartet for the End of Time was peformed for the first time in Stalag 8-A on January 15, 1941, by Jean Le Boulaire, violinist; Henri Akoka, clarinetist; Étienne Pasquier, cellist; and myself at the piano. It is directly inspired by this excerpt from "The Revelation of St. John." Its musical language is essentially transcendental, spiritual, catholic. Certain modes, realizing melodically and harmonically a kind of tonal ubiquity, draw the listener into a sense of the eternity of space or time. Particular rhythms existing outside the measure contribute importantly toward the banishment of temporalities. (All this is mere striving and childish stammering if one compares it to the overwhelming grandeur of the subject!)

Time is a terrible ruler; resources imprison people. Wouldn't you like to smash it all to bits, dissolve the prison walls, end the tyranny of the beat? The end of time destroys walls; the totality of time eliminates space.

We're just now coming to the seventy-second anniversary of that debut performance.

In the mid-Seventies, the midpoint between then and now, the piece languished in obscurity, poised between the new music establishment (hmm, yeah. It's not really atonal or serial, now, is it? How about minimal? We've got a Terry Riley program coming up... no? Ok, we'll give you a call!) and classical traditionals (um are you fucking kidding me? Brahms! MAYBE Mahler.), with an uncommon instrumentation to boot (seemed like a good idea when you were a freaking NAZI WAR PRISONER, didn't it, Messiaen?), when TASHI showed up to save the day. They formed to play this quartet, like Voltron! They had the sweetest hippie garb - robes and paisley. The record cover is the awesomest hippy-dippy Eastern carp BS.

(Guess they didn't get the memo about the Summer of Love being eight years earlier, and hadn't heard all the disco on the radio. Cut them a break, y'all. They were busy learning how to play the Quartet for the End of Time.)

Time keeps on slippin' slippin' slippin' into the future... Time time time, see what's become of me... look around, leaves are brown, there's a patch of snow on the ground... except there isn't because climate change... Chicago stopped being cold... if you guys want to keep complaining about winter, you better move to Kamchatka or some shit like that...

Wait where was I? Oh yeah, the eternal NOW. Tashi reunited in 2008. My wife and I took my daughter (the very Frances who does all the picking), a few months old at the time, to catch the show at Ravinia. Ravinia was founded a century or so ago as a way to entice people to take the train from Chicago. I was like, duh, let's take the train. Don't have to park! Don't have to wait for the shuttle! My wife went along with it, but I bet she thought it was kind of a bad idea, cause she's like, a lot more practical than I am. So just before the transcendent final movement (seriously, it is a thing to hear), we see a bunch of people packing up their baskets and taking off. Hmm. There's another train, though, so I mean, it's Tashi, they're about to launch into this shit, you know? We stayed. Tashi kind of flubbed it - at least I thought. I mean we were on the lawn listening through speakers, and we had a tiny baby, but I'm pretty sure those crucial high notes at the end were shaky and the pitch was for sure off. Then we packed up, and waited, and waited, and waited, and waited, an hour for the last train. Right. So that's why those people left. Frances was pissed!

Time, time, time. An hour for the train. After ten pm with a pissed off baby. Messiaen dissolved the boundaries of the universe, but the Metra didn't get the memo. Cut them a break, y'all. They were too busy being ON TIME.

She's pushing five now, Frances, and this year for Christmas she got me a record at Val's Halla. The Tashi record. I already had it, but now I have it again, twice. Time is frozen and thawed. Thanks, Frances. She decorated the bag too!