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La Nativite Du Seigneur

December 29, 2008

I think I lost quite a few listeners when I played three movements from Olivier Messiaen's 1935 organ work La Nativite du Seigneur on my KALW radio show the other day. At least, several of my friends who tuned in to hear the show weren't impressed by the French composer's ponderous, mystical meditation on the nativity. "That was catchy," said one of them, sarcastically. "Was there something wrong with your CD player?" another one asked.

In a sense, I kind of empathize with their feelings. The piece isn't exactly easy listening. And the recording I aired on the radio featuring the composer himself playing the organ of the Holy Trinity church in Paris where he served as "organist titulaire" for more than 40 years, wasn't very high quality. The recording was made around 50 years ago and the instrument is almost a quarter-tone flat. Still, the guest I invited on to my show for a live interview was just about to perform La Nativite in recital and I was enough entranced by Messiaen's take on it to broadcast it near the top of my two-hour show that night.

But now that I've heard the piece performed live, I can full appreciate the wonders within it. Jeffrey Smith, head of music at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco (and the guest on my radio broadcast the other day) performed Messiaen's piece in recital at the Cathedral yesterday afternoon.

I don't think I've listened to an organ piece more carefully and with such rapture in my life. The music hit me on a really visceral level. The sparkling flurries of treble notes in movement VI, "Les Anges" made my head ring. I felt like I was watching snowflakes skitter down a window pane. My skin prickled with every overtone that pinged like a sharp point of light in the night sky throughout the spiraling third movement, "Desseins Eternels". And when the reeds of the pedal descended with an epic growl in the final movement, "Dieu Parmi Nous", before ending with a crashing, glorious major chord, I felt like I were being physically stretched in all directions, my feet pulled deep into the grown and my head way up towards the rafters of the cathedral.

Part of the pleasure of listening was also intellectual. Thanks to the judicious publication of some of the composer's notes about his composition in the program, I was easily able to pick out particular themes, hear where raga-inspired melodies rubbed shoulders with Bach-like cadences, and feel the tension between major-minor scales and Messiaen's innovative, freewheeling "modes of limited transposition." Not a bad way to spend an hour on a Sunday afternoon.

My friend Sarah, a London-based professional saxophonist and trumpet player and advanced yoga enthusiast who joined me for the concert, made an interesting point afterwards. She said that like bell-ringing and singing, organ music opens up the heart chakra in the body. The news came as no surprise. Not only did I feel more awake and open during and after the performance, but I could also hear "eastern" ideas in this most "western" of music idioms, the church organ recital. This was obviously intended by the composer -- ragas are mentioned in his program notes. Once again, I saw how music is one way of sampling the fundamental kinship between western and eastern spiritual traditions. As different as world theological traditions purport to be, Messiaen's work demonstrates how they are grounded in the same roots.

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