AVA174: How To Make Sense Of The Chords In The 3rd Movement Of Messiaen’s L’Ascension In Order To Learn Them Fairly Fast?
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start Episode 174 of Ask Vidas and Ausra podcast. This question was sent by Russell. He writes “How to make sense of the chords in the third movement of Messiaen's L’Ascension in order to learn them fairly fast.” Oh, this is a very famous movement, right Ausra?
A: Yes, it is.
V: And very interesting question. I played this piece a number of years ago and I it’s a fantastic movement. I think I’ve even recorded a video of this performance from St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Nebraska, Lincoln. On the organ built by Gene Bedient. Remember that recital?
A: Yes, I remember it.
V: And I think one of comments I received from one of the YouTubers was that I shouldn’t teach people because I play with mistakes. That was really funny. Because, yes, in one of the passages I made a mistake or two in this particular movement. Usually I don't reply to such comments but this time I couldn't resist and asked if he has his own video of this piece from which I could learn. Of course he didn't reply... People who put themselves on the line normally don't criticize others because they know what does it take to be vulnerable.
So, then the question is how to make sense of the chords?Obviously, Russell has to be familiar with the modal system that Messiaen is using, right?
V: And the best place to get familiar with this is his treatise which is called “The Technique of My Musical Language” which in French is “Technique de mon langage musical.” Forgive my french pronunciation. So, basically in this book Messiaen writes out his influences, rhythmic influences, modal influences, even gregorian chant influences, bird calls influences, hindu rhythms and other things. Right, Ausra? Let’s suppose Russell has read a chapter or two from this book where he would find information about the modes. Right? What else?
A: Well that’s the thing. I have you know, read quite a few books actually about Messiaen compositions, about his compositional techniques, which basically consists of you know imitating birds singing, the modes of limited transposition, added note values, and some hindu rhythms, some gregorian chants, you know, influences. But basically, I don’t think it helped me to learn his music faster. Maybe it helped me to understand his music better, but then working on the music itself, on his texts himself, I think I still have to struggle quite a lot.
V: Me too. It’s not an easy technique. It’s not an easy writing style. Because he was so original at the time. But what helped me was really to study the modes one by one. And by studying I mean is playing a scale based on this mode from the note C with my right hand only in an octave, a range of one octave, then in two octaves, then in four octaves, then with the left hand up and down, then two hands up and down and treating this mode just like a regular C Major scale and getting familiar myself with it. And then transposing from the note C# and then from D, and then from any other note that it’s possible. Because their modes of limited transposition and you cannot transpose them endlessly.
A: Yes, since you reach a certain point you cannot transpose them anymore, that’s why it’s titled modes of limited transposition.
V: And then you could play scales of double thirds, or scale of double fourths, or even sixths in each hand just like regular warming up exercise you would find in Hanon or anywhere else.
A: But what about particular L’Ascension cycle? What would you do with those chords?
V: You take an opening, remember you have big chords at the beginning and then you have to decipher those chords which means you write down on the staff the scale based on those chords and you find out what the mode is.
A: But technically would it help you to apply it to the keyboard?
V: It would help me.
A: And you play it with mistakes, yes?
V: Yeah, I’m famous for playing with mistakes. But that doesn’t stop me from playing you see. And the person who makes the most mistakes wins always because they try the most. And Russell can try the most also if he tries to transpose those opening fragments or in the middle whenever he is struggling, wherever he finds difficult spot.
A: Wouldn’t it mix him up even more, and would make things even harder?
V: Yes and no because Messiaen himself transposes fragments of his modes in the same piece too, in several spots.
A: So then why just not you know to exercise more to work on those spots, hard spots more?
V: That helps.
A: In various tempos, in a slow tempo first and then move tempo ahead a little bit and maybe you know to practice in different rhythmic formulas.
V: Dotted rhythms.
V: You are right it will help. But you see what you need to do if you are Russell, you need to understand how the fragment is put together, you have to basically deconstruct it. And by creating a mode, right, a string of notes, ascending string of notes based on those chords would help you to understand which mode of limited transposition Messiaen is using at the moment. And then you see “Oh, it’s a second mode”, “Oh, it’s a third mode”, “Oh, maybe it’s a fourth mode.”, you see and maybe even label them on the score with pencil.
A: Yes, but it’s very much time consuming don’t you think?
V: Oh, what’s the rush Ausra?
A: I don’t know.
V: We have all the time in the world I think, right? And we are not competing with anybody, right? We are not competing with Messiaen, he’s dead already. May he rest in peace. And we are only competing with ourselves, right? What we achieved yesterday, and today, and tomorrow maybe if we live. Anything else Ausra for parting advice for Russell and others who want to study Messiaen.
A: Well be patient. That’s a hard music to learn.
V: And if you have never played Messiaen before don’t start with L’Ascension. Right?
A: Start with “Le Banquet Celeste.” That’s I think a good piece to start.
V: Or maybe “Apparition de l’eglise eternelle”
A: You know they both use extremely slow tempo but I think that’s a good way for beginning to learn Messiaen.
V: But don’t play “Diptyque”, right?
A: Yes, it’s just the second piece that Messiaen composed to the organ but it is very hard.
V: Ausra has special memories about this piece.
A: Yes, and you know I don’t like those memories.
V: It’s more similar to Vierne style than to Messiaen.
A: I had to learn it like in a week or two and play it in master class, that’s what’s an awful way to do.
V: OK guys, we hope this was useful to you. Please apply our tips in your practice and send us more of your questions. We love helping you grow. This was Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
V: And remember when you practice…
A: Miracles happen.
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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