Playing With Wolfgang: How Messiaen Taught Me The Law of Opposites
I was immersed in 5 pieces from Messiaen’s Contemplations of the Infant Jesus. It’s hard not to be once you step through the rabbit hole and begin working on them. The contemplation part just sort of takes over.
The drums in the opening of Prophets, Shepherds, and Kings transformed into arrogant goose-stepping Nazis. I marveled at a man fathoming and conveying musically all that goes through a woman’s mind when she learns she is pregnant. And, don’t get me started on the musical portents of what her child will endure…
Of course, I did have to come up for air occasionally—back to real life. In my teaching, I began noticing more and more parallels between the Contemporary Era pieces my students were working on and the Messiaen I was studying. Several qualities stood out. Impressionism: use of whole keyboard, programs, word painting, & sound effects, Rhythm: irregular patterns, changing meters, & importance of individual beats, and Dissonance: clusters, modes/constructed scale patterns, & exotic harmonies.
We began to work on short composition projects that highlighted these qualities. We even created some tone row music. Many times, composing activities are designed to develop a strong tonal center, sense of meter, and balanced phrases. My students and I discovered a great teaching truth through the process of working with the more non-traditional elements of dissonance, impressionism, and rhythm.
That truth was what I call The Law of Opposites. To know what the opposite of something is, you have to really understand that thing. Creating the opposite of a strong tonal center, balanced phrases, and regular meter helped my students discover and truly understand more traditional elements.
The best part of all was that my students connected the music they created to their own lives and experience. Titles included Crashing Knights, The Coyotes and the Moon, Harvester of Sorrow, Maze, The Argument in the Garden, In Memory of…, and Summer Rains. I asked them about their experience and they said a mouthful. Here are some of the comments they shared.
Deciding not to say anything with music is actually making a statement.
Maybe the pieces are random because War and Horror of the times were so terrible – they are random like life.
There were lots of rules but each person’s piece had it’s own personality and creativity.
It’s OK to create a nightmare, crazy dream, or fantasy with music.
Many thanks Olivier