To contemporary music composers, Olivier Messiaen has long been revered as a pioneer whose works incorporated elements such as birdsongs and, as far back as 1937, electronic instrumentation.
And yet today, 100 years after his birth, the French composer’s music continues to appeal to a limited audience, even in his own country. This, however, has not deterred the ART+Foundation from marking his centennial with a series of 16 events that will be held over six months at the Art Cafe in Phnom Penh.
Foundation Director Gerhard Anton Isselhardt said such a series would hardly have been possible in Cambodia 10 years ago and reflects developments that have taken place in both the economic and cultural arenas.
When he started teaching music at the Royal University of Fine Arts in 1999, Isselhardt said, it was Thai popular music that dominated television.
“Today, we have Khmer rock, Khmer hip hop and Khmer rap,” he said. In popular as well as Western classical music, he said, “We cannot promote on the one hand technology, knowledge and experiences from the 20th and 21st centuries, and then keep on showing [young Cambodians] music from the 16th and 17th and 18th centuries.”
Isselhardt said he met skepticism while planning the series. His response was that the events are aimed at simply making people aware of Messiaen’s music, not to make them fond of it, noting that composers have often been disliked in their own time.
Nevertheless, he added, “His music is a development of the 20th century and we cannot hide it…. Cambodia is ready for high-tech, Cambodia is ready for hip-hop and Cambodia is ready for Messiaen.”
As for comprehending the music, Isselhardt said he had told his students: “We are not talking of understanding; we are in the field of expressions, of feelings, of impressions.”
For each event, the walls of the cafe will be covered with huge banners of abstracts by famous 20th century painters—such as Robert Delaunay, Jackson Pollock, Wassily Kandinsky and Hans Arp—to show the spirit of Messiaen’s era in the arts.
The series, which started Saturday with one of the composer’s organ pieces, will include a documentary on his life and music April 19 as well as works of composers or musicians influenced by him, such as “Earth and Sky” by New Zealander Jenny McLeod, who was one of Messiaen’s students.
Because the theme of the series is “Hearing Colors, Seeing Music,” there will be a conference in June on Messiaen’s belief that specific sounds correspond to colors, and October will bring an exhibition of paintings by Cambodian painter Chhim Sothy and US-based German artist Clement Jesch illustrating the composer’s approach.
Messiaen, who was born Dec 10, 1908, liked to blend Hindu and Balinese music accents in his pieces.
Organist at the La Trinite church in Paris from 1931 until his death in April 1992, he taught leading 20th-century composers such as France’s Pierre Boulez and Germany’s Karlheinz Stockhausen.
A French soldier during World War II, he composed his “Quartet for the End of Time” and performed it with other musician prisoners while in a German prison camp in Poland. This work will be featured at the Art Cafe in July.
Admission to all events is free.