Messiaen, Wagner, affirmation

In a footnote in Logics of Worlds, Badiou makes recourse to what he calls his ‘personal opinion’ in singling out Olivier Messiaen (not genuinely part of any ‘truth procedure’ of the century) as his favourite composer of the latter half of the 20th Century, rather than, say Pierre Boulez (a militant of the ‘Schoenberg event’):

I hope I can be allowed a concession to sheer personal taste. Of all the musicians active in the second half of the twentieth century, after Webern’s death, Olivier Messiaen is my favourite. I believe it is because he obstinately maintains–by means of composite but original devices (less neo-classical in spirit than those of Dutilleux, so to speak)–an extraordinary affirmative virtue. Pierre Boulez, undoubtedly more subtle and more rigorous, only conquers a restricted space and leaves music far too fettered by a kind of critical asceticism. Christianity certainly helps Messiaen to celebrate, in the music itself, the correspondence between music and world, a correspondence of which the ‘brute’ usage of birdsong is a symbol. But this is still only a subjective means. As the affirmationist that I am, I salute–in Messiaen’s particular combination of overlapping rhythms, disparate harmonic modes and violent tonalities–a kind of conquering voluptuousness whose optimism I find enchanting. (LOW, p. 528)

Apart from the fact that this reading of Messiaen is so wonderfully suggestive, the most striking thing here is that Badiou feels he needs to make out like this is a matter of ‘personal taste’, while it is entirely founded upon his philosophical prescription for the arts: ‘affirmation’. Moreover, this reading is entirely consistent with his take on Wagner’s Parsifal as an overcoming of Christianity by way of a complete affirmation of Christianity as such – stripping the negativity and ressentiment out from underneath the Christianity to affirm all of its resources for a (minimally) different purpose . This is what Badiou sees as the meaning of ‘Redemption to the Redeemer’. Not a resumption of Christianity as such but a kind of purifying and analogical sublation (see Five Lessons on Wagner, pp. 141-151).

The Messiaen-world can be said to invent a concerted sacralization of its own components. (LOW, p. 528)

This is hardly of the order of ‘personal opinion’ – but instead a coherent philosophical position, and indeed an ethical position that could be of use for the composer today. Moreover, this is the only musically interesting position Badiou has (or can have) with regard to music (beyond the worth of his onto-logy for music generally). This is bound up within the problematic of philosophy and its conditions, and Badiou’s theory of inaesthetics – Badiou can’t really tell composers what to do, but he also can – it’s complicated. He seems to be undermining his own position by calling his philosophical prescription (based on a formalisation of the ‘contemporary compossibility’ of truths) a mere personal opinion… Why not simply say that Messiaen is now more important than Boulez since ours is a time for affirmation and not for the fetters of a critical asceticism?

An interesting point, however, is that Messiaen and Wagner’s affirmations are not quite the same: Wagner’s is an affirmation within transition, whereas – due to his cyclic and repetitive constructions – Messiaen’s is an affirmation of stasis. This is not always such a clear distinction however – I’m thinking of those free flowing passages in some of Messiaen’s music (for instance, ‘Antienne du Silence’ from Chants de terre et de ciel). Much more to be explored, and certainly much to be musically constructed around this problematic.

Also, what exactly is the role of the birdsong in Messiaen’s affirmation – how are they a ‘symbol’ of the celebration of the correspondence between world and music? I’m also interested in how they relate to the the supple rhythms that proliferate the Gérard Grisey’s late works, since there is a profound similarity in their construction and deployment…


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