After Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time
The Clarion Content correspondent attended the performance of David Krakauer’s Akoka, Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, and Josh Dolgin aka DJ SoCalled’s remix of Messiaen called Meanwhile. The performance was held Saturday on Duke University’s campus at the Page Auditorium. It was performed by clarinetist David Krakauer, cellist Matt Haimovitz, violinist Todd Reynolds, and pianist Geoffrey Burleson. They were joined by DJ SoCalled for the final piece.
The show was seventy minutes of music straight through with fascinating and evocative lighting changes that are rare for a classical music concert. Messiaen wrote his piece during the darkest days of World War II, January 1941 when the Germans occupied nearly all of Europe. It is music written in at the nadir of a great crisis. Hope for the free world was dim. Henri Akoka was an Algerian Jewish clarinetist who played with Messiaen at the premier of his piece, in a German Prisoner of War camp, Stalag 8-A. Akoka was left behind when a music loving German guard released Messiaen and the two other French musicians to the collaborationist Vichy-French government. He later escaped and went on to a career as a character actor.
As for the music it was dissonant, anti-melodic, anti-harmonic, arrhythmic. The meter constant shifted and felt turbulent. Yet it was oddly and eerily coordinated; self-aware.
It was not the kind of music that one would want to hear at the end of the world. It was not comforting or soothing. It was more the sort of music that one might hear in one’s head if one were a European who’d had classical music training and felt the end of the world was nigh. Regular sounds become disturbed, panicky, overly-rapid, then the mind seizes control of them again, marshals them ,imposes will, but dissonance and crazy thoughts and sounds seep through, then explode. The pace changes again, it slows to become mournful, baleful, somber, but still arrhythmic.
There were solos for each of the instruments. There was frenetic clarinet. The mournfulness of the cello was set against the piano played almost like doleful metronome. The musicians’ faces held intense expressions as if the difficulty of what they were doing was almost physically painful. The meter changes and the anti-melodic discord made those looks vibe as if the players were fighting against their instruments and instincts. Within that, their ability to sync up what they were doing precisely with the timing of what someone else was doing was remarkable. How hard must it be, how inhuman and against the nature of the beat that thrums within our caveman souls must it be, to play against the musical instinct of rhythm and harmony. There was a tension between lack of tempo and the simultaneity of sound. The strain on the musicians was evident.
In the audience the emotion of the music was conveyed, too. It was fear music. It was disturbing, its eeriness echoed and underlined by the changes in lighting, primal colors. Not much of the music was downright sorrowful, but if one were used to listening to classical music, hearing it and anticipating what might come next through the forces of habit and the expected form of the usual, some of this music could have freaked one out. It went nowhere it was supposed to, it went there vitriolically, then it went slowly back, still off-beat and discordant. The music shrieked and screeched in dissonant ways to totally other places, only to circle back to vague hints of oddly familiar lines, bars and scales.
The only way the conceit worked was to play the whole thing through start to finish, to have had it stop and then start up again, with what they were playing, aurally the nature of it, the act of it would have been somewhere between too irritating and too disturbing to be acceptable. It would have been highly agitating. The music was quite literally off-beat, a frantic pace, then almost East Asian sounding calm, a subdued moment beyond the storm. Nope, it was the eye, more unpredictable crashing and madness. It almost felt like the music could be seizure inducing, especially combined with the lighting changes. There was a palpable panic.
Highly effective, not comforting. Let us hope the world never faces days as dark as January 1941 again.