Olivier Messiaen and the directional meaning of music

Olivier Messiaen is regarded as one of the most important composers of the 20th Century. He is known for creating a synthesis of very varied elements in his music: the use of birdsong in his composition, for taking the inspiration from nature, for creating rhythms based on ancients Greek and Hindu meters, for using compositional tools such as non-retrogradable rhythms (rhythmic palindromes), and modes of limited transposition that for him embodies different complexes of colours, and maybe most important for using theological ideas from his Catholic faith. However, all of this served what we could call the transformative telos of his music, and which he calls the “break towards the beyond, towards the invisible and unspeakable, which may be made by means of sound-colour, and is summed up in the sensation of dazzlement.” (Olivier Messiaen, Conférence de Notre Dame, Descember 4, 1977, in Rössler 57)

In a hand-written note for a program booklet, Messiaen writes about this transformation as part of a spiritual illumination as the directional meaning of music:

Music is a perpetual dialogue between space and time, between sound and colour, a dialogue which leads into a unification: Time is a space, sound is a colour, space is a complex of superimposed times, sound-complexes exist at the same time as complexes of colour. The musician who thinks, sees, hears, speaks, is able, by means of these fundamental ideas, to come closer to the next world to a certain extent. And, as St. Thomas says: music brings us to God through “default of truth”, until the day when He Himself will dazzle us with “an excess of truth”. That is perhaps the significant meaning – and also the directional meaning – of music… (Olivier Messiaen in Rössler 10)

In the following we will try to get a sense of what Messiaen means by dazzlement, how this sensation is connected to a break towards the beyond and what it means that it may be “made by” sound-colour. This will be done by breaking apart many of Messiaen´s statements in order to see a structure or line of progression that belongs to the experience of dazzlement. But what also opens through this explication of the economy of dazzlement is the possibility for refining and tuning the listening and apprehending consciousness towards the conditions for such a passage. This opens the path to a transformative practice that can go a long way towards cultivating dazzlement, tuning oneself as a musician in order to develop a receptiveness of this what Messiaen calls the directional meaning of music.

Dazzlement as grounded in naturally given part of human experience

What Messiaen calls dazzlement as a break towards the beyond has its root in two natural phenomena: complimentary colours and natural resonance. For Messiaen these are not peripheral experiences, rather “one does not fully understand music if one has not often experienced these two phenomena: Complimentary colours; Natural resonance of sounding bodies” (Rössler 62):

I believe that those are two interconnected phenomena of outstanding importance which are also scientifically verifiable; one sees them and hears them and they´re real and natural… (Rössler 115))

In this sense, the breakthrough has to do with developing a subtle and veiled but nevertheless naturally given part of human experience. Because “these two phenomena are connected to the sensation of the sacred, to … dazzlement” (Rössler 62), the phenomenon of dazzlement can be seen as an experience growing out of a naturally occurring gift of human perception. Natural resonance and complimentary colours can be seen and heard as ways to access this subtle dimension of sensing, changing perception from its solidification and objectification of a world independent from the perceiving subject, to a more participatory and feeling way of living inside the perceived. Provided one pays attention to these phenomena and develop this normally overseen and overheard part of perception, dazzlement can be seen as a natural gift that may occur as part of a conscious development of experience.

Natural resonance of sounding bodies and complimentary colours

Both the phenomenon of natural resonance and of complimentary colours are well-known phenomena, accessible without any special gift of perceptual capacity. In the Lecture at Notre-Dame Messiaen introduces the two phenomena separately in this way:

If I hit, very strongly, the low C on a piano: after a few seconds, I will hear, in clear and successive stages, the first tones which are called the “natural resonance of a sounding body”. If I possess a normal ear, I ought to hear another C, higher than the first (the octave), then a G (the fifth). If I have a more acute ear, I will then hear an E (the third); finally, a trained musician´s ear will hear Bb and D (seventh and ninth). Personally, I also hear the F# (augmented fourth), rather strong, and an Ab (minor sixth), very weak. Then comes a multitude of higher harmonics, inaudible to the naked ear, but of which we can gain an idea from listening to the complex resonance of a tam-tam or a great cathedral bell. (Rössler, 61)

What Messiaen refers to as the natural resonance of the C is of course what is also called the partials, or overtone spectrum of the tone C. The partials Messiaen says are audible to him in clear and successive stages are C, C, G, E, Bb, D, F# and Ab. Natural resonance is a well-known phenomenon in acoustics, and the mathematical computation of the relation between the partials was first done by Sauveur around 1700, while they were experimentally observed already in the 17th Century. [Ernst-Jürgen Dreyer, Goethes Ton-Wissenschaft, Ullstein Materialen, Frankfurt, 1985, page 70]

After this he goes on to present the phenomenon of complimentary colours.

If I put on a piece of white paper a circle of red paint…and I look long and intensely at the line of demarcation between the red and the white: after a moment, the red portion at the edge of the white will become more intensely red, and the white will take on a flaming green, which flashes, fades, flashes again, and gives a bright green of incomparable beauty (a bit like emerald, dioptase or certain opals). If we do the same with blue, we will have a flaming orange. If we do the same with yellow, we will have a flaming pale violet or mauve. On the other hand, a green will give a red, an orange will give a pale blue, a violet will give a yellow. This is the phenomenon of “complementary colour”.

This phenomenon, which is also called an after-image, has been known since antiquity [ExperienceColour, ed. Troy Vine, Ruskin Mill Land Trust, 2018, page 24.] One of the first systematic studies of the phenomena was done by Goethe in his Farbenlehre in the first partunder the heading of Physiological Colours. Here, in paragraph 50, Goethe lists the same complimentary colours as Messiaen notes, and arranges them in a circle in which the colours diametrically opposed are complimentary:

The colours are here arranged in a general way according to the natural order, and the arrangement will be found to be directly applicable in the present case; for the colours diametrically opposed to each other in this diagram are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye. Thus, yellow demands purple; organge, blue; red, green; and vice versa.

The three colours that Messiaen begins with are the three fundamental colours according to Goethe. Blue and Yellow are the Ur-colours, that together with red occupies a special place since they cannot come about through blending of other colours. Between these pure colours are then arranged the ones that Goethe conceives of as compounds. Together this chromatic wheel arranges the colours that come about through a prism.


The sensation of the sacred: developing a feeling perception

After Messiaen in his lecture presented the phenomena of natural resonance and complimentary colours, he goes on to say that “these two phenomena are connected to the sensation of the sacred, to the dazzlement which gives birth to Reverence, Adoration, Praise.” (Rössler, 62) The two phenomena – the experience of the tone as a manifold of partials as given in natural resonance, and the experience of after-images that are revealed when we dwell in the experience of the colour impression – are connected to the sensation of the sacred and to dazzlement Messiaen tells us. This is key, and it also points to why Messiaen attaches great importance to the cultivation of these phenomena. What Messiaen effectively says, is that a cultivation of complimentary colours and natural resonance can transform our relation to the perceived and fill us with a sense of the sacredness of the world that can ultimately lead to the experience of dazzlement.

This is an interesting claim that echoes Goethe who in the section Sinnlich-sittliche Wirkung der Farbe (translated as Effect of Colour with Reference to Moral Associations) of his Farbenlehre also studies the emotional and moral qualities of colours. Goethe claimed that each colour was accompanied by an emotional quality normally not noticed because one does not experience the colour purely enough in itself. To do this Goethe suggests to find a situation in which the eye is surrounded by one colour, as for example by looking through a coloured glass so that one identifies completely with the hue. The eye and mind are then tuend in unison to the colour. [See Farbenlehre § 762 and 763] Studying the colours attentively and comtemplatively these underlying emotional tones can be brought more strongly into consciousness, and become an objective element in experience. That is, for Goethe these feelings are not subjective in the sense of being arbitrary and dependent on personal dispositions. They are rather an objective element of the world, revealed through the subject, provided it has come to a selfless and and attentive participation in sensual experience. In this way Goethe´s morphology of colour-experience can be used as a practical experimentation with meditative deepening of sense-perception. Eventually such comtemplation can become a gateway to deeper mystical experiences Goethe notices. [See Farbenlehre § 915]  

There is clearly a resonance between Messiaen´s claim and Goethe´s descriptions, in that both touch upon an ethical and even sacred dimension of perception, and both claim this can lead to a deep transformative experience.

How can we understand this change in sense more closely? Entering into the phenomena of natural resonance and complimentary colour in after-images brings one into contact with the world in a deeper, more intimate sense. Perception gains a more participatory aspect. With vision one experiences that the eye itself becomes creative, and in both listening to the overtones and seeing after-images one has to actively engage with the phenomenon while letting the sense-organs work without intellectual interruption. This has a certain devotional quality. The sense of the sacred that Messiaen points to must in any case be a question of intensity and devotion to the phenomena: simply to notice after-images and partial tones is not enough. That is just an opportunity to learn to live into these phenomena, to learn to dwell in them. Messiaen´s descriptions is one of taking them in and learning to breathe in the flaming and flashes of colour and the expanding partial tones, as a gateway towards further transformations. This requires a more receptive attitude, an attention in which intentionality and the will of cognition is quasi reversed so that it acquires an active listening-receptive mode. This is a process which requires time, effort and self-forgetfulness. An inner calm of a contemplative presence with a kind of vigil letting come must be developed. In all this we can sense a kind of “tuning” of the soul, a way of being in the process of perception that is receptive to the qualities of the world. The colours begins to affect one in a deeper sense, and sound becomes more and more an envelope, a living multiplicity or layers of sound that harbours feeling qualities. An ethical aspect of sensation emerges also in that the gestures of attention are immediately disclosive or concealing of the perceptual world. The world is no longer given neutrally, but responds to the way one approaches it, as if one is touching what one sees or hears. In this process perception gains a deeper feeling quality.

Sensing is in this way no longer a purely optical or auditory phenomenon, but something which resonates in the whole body and being of the perceived. It is such a full experience of colours that Goethe tries to bring to expression in his description of the Sinnlich-sittliche Wirkung der Farbe. Even if this concerns not specifically the subtleties of colours in after-images, living into these descriptions may help understand Messiaen´s claims about the moral qualities of sensing. Therefore, it may be worthwile to quote some of these examples together with some images for contemplation. Goethe writes for example about the colours yellow, blue and red: [Goethe Farbenlehre, § 765 – 796]

[Yellow] is the color nearest the light. It appears on the slightest mitigation of light, whether by semi-transparent mediums or faint reflection from white surfaces. … In its highest purity it always carries with it the nature of brightness, and has a serene, gay, softly exciting character.

Blue: As yellow is always accompanied with light, so it may be said that blue still brings a principle of darkness with it. This color has a peculiar and almost indescribable effect on the eye. As a hue it is powerful — but it is on the negative side, and in its highest purity is, as it were, a stimulating negation. Its appearance, then, is a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose. As the upper sky and distant mountains appear blue, so a blue surface seems to retire from us. But as we readily follow an agreeable object that flies from us, so we love to contemplate blue — not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it. Blue gives us an impression of cold, and thus, again, reminds us of shade. We have before spoken of its affinity with black.

The effect of [red] is as peculiar as its nature. It conveys an impression of gravity and dignity, and at the same time of grace and attractiveness. The first in its dark deep state, the latter in its light attenuated tint; and thus the dignity of age and the amiableness of youth may adorn itself with degrees of the same hue.

This approach is often treated as belonging to the domain of psychology. But it is important to see the claim Goethe makes of it as being more than subjective psychological reactions. For Goethe, becoming aware of this quality in colour experience was not less part of colour than the purely optical registration of the difference between red and blue. The descriptions with which Goethe attempts to make colour-experience more conscious are perhaps best considered as descriptions of the affects in the Deleuzian sense. Affects belong to the phenomenon with necessity no less than other properties, even if they are, as in this case, more fleeting and difficult to pin down. Colours can not be thought of as an object in the world, but no less is Goethe conceiving of his project as a study of human representations. Colours are effects or event that emerge, and these events are of the vitality of the world, not only a human organism according to Goethe´s view. [See Eric Alliez´s excellent discussion of this epistemological positioning of Goethe vis a vi Newton´s mathematical formalization and the Schopenhauerian subjectivisation in The Brain-Eye, Chapter 1, The Goethe Transformation] Without being able to enter this discussion now, it should be said that this does not stand in opposition to the fact that colours are also dependent on cultural codification and conceptualization.

But what about such an approach to sound and music? A number of aspects could be explored in a similar way. For example, the quality of a tone with regard to its timbre, i.e. connected to the quality of the material from which it emerges would give rise to very different qualities – the feeling of metal versus wood, a vibrating string versus blown air. Another is the feelings (or affects) connected to the pitch, where such qualities as light and darkness, width or narrowness, slow or fast movement etc. could approach and affective quality that leads into the sound.

Connected to this is also a deepened experience of the affects of intervals. In his study of Mozart´s The Magic Flute Christoph Peters has given one example of such an approach, where he outlines a conceptualization of the qualities in melodic intervals in the following way. The unison is experienced as resting in itself. In the second there is a feeling of movement, in a dialogue-way. The third has a strong feeling quality of warmth, more towards light in the major and dark in the minor. The fourth is described as wakefulness, as a gesture of holding oneself within or a beholding of oneself, more related to the unison than the second and third. The fifth widens as if to the limits between oneself and opens towards the outside. In the sixth there is again a strong sensation, but now this feeling is directed outwards as opposed to the third which dwelt in itself. The seventh has a strong feeling of movement but – especially in the major – this goes out of itself, outward towards the octave. The octave finally is felt as a higher kind of unity.

Now, one can agree or disagree with these descriptions, or complain about the cultural relativity of the examples. But the point is not to fix any truth about a phenomenon but the manner of attuning oneself consciously to what emerges at the fringes of consciousness. What we can take from Messiaen´s indications, which resonate so strongly with the way Goethe studied colours, is the way of approach. Developing sensation in a way that includes the affective dimension means that listening to a tone or seeing a colour works back upon the listener and attunes him or her to the phenomenon. Creating a circulation between impression and attention that works its way into the whole being of the perciever unearths more of the affective dimension of sensing, ideally up to the point where it becomes an affect beyond the subjective reactions. As we will see below, at this point the intensive dimension may enter. By conceptualizing the affective dimension, the focus on the tone or colour is not lost. At the same time, every new plunge into the sensible means forgetting the conceptual and reflective relationship in a pure sensing to what it reveals of itself.

In this way we can develop a more conscious devotion within sensation, and perhaps also better come to understand what Messiaen alludes to when he says that the subtle aspects of sensing leads to the sensation of the sacred. Developing a highly active yet receptive and “listening” attitude inside perception changes the awareness in the flow between world and consciousness, and what is usually simply registered and objectified begins to speak and radiate a qualitative dimension. One being to feel that within perception a life-process occur, ensouled with affective qualities.


Knocking the inner senses: Synaesthesia and the intensive dimension of sensation

Now Messiaen goes on to connect sound and colour on the level of complementarity and resonance. In the Notre-Dame lecture he says

I believe that those are two interconnected phenomena of outstanding importance which are also scientifically verifiable; one sees them and hears them and they´re real and natural (Rössler 115)),

and in an interview, he claims that they are in “exact agreement”:

I believe in natural resonance, as I believe in all natural phenomena. Natural resonance is in exact agreement with the phenomena of complementary colours. I´ve made several experiments with complimentary colours. I have a red carpet that I often look at. Where this red carpet meets the lighter-coloured parquet next to it, I intermittently see marvelous greens that a painter couldn´t mix, natural colours created in the eye. Likewise, sound generates harmonics. When you hear a gong… Make a long sound on a gong and you´ll hear some fantastic things. It´s a modernism that no modern composer could surpass. [In an interview in the film Olivier Messiaen. La Liturgie de Cristal, directed by Olivier Mille. Juxta Positions, 2002.]

In what way are these phenomena interconnected, what does it mean that they are in “exact agreement”? Even if Messiaen does not say it explicitly, it is clear that he regards his synesthesia as an expression of this agreement. Messiaen explicitly regards his synesthetic experience not as a matter of physiological response like neurological interconnection or any subjective organic conditioning. In calling it an intellectual synesthesia, Messiaen is convinced that it is a matter of the phenomenon of sound and colour itself, and that what happens in experiencing the phenomenon of after-images and complimentary colours is intrinsically connected to the deeper experience of sound when entering intensively into its natural resonance.

Messiaen also suggest that this aspect of perception and experience is going on subliminally all the time, that to some extent it is a universal human experience:

“Sight and hearing are linked to each other … I do believe that most men and women have a sense of this correlation, a sort of sixth sense, it´s only less developed, because they don´t give themselves an account of it … they experience it instinctively, it goes on at a subconscious level” (Rössler 78,79).

Even if not a common experience, synesthesia is not such an unusual capacity. Many people have such experiences without necessarily attaching a significant spiritual experience of breakthrough to it. What Messiaen is concerned with when he connects sound-colour to dazzlement cannot have the experience of synesthesia as the essential thing in itself. It appears rather that sound-colour is one possible site or gateway to dazzlement. Dazzlement can be “made by” these phenomena when

the sounds strike and knock our inner ear, and these multicolored things move and irritate our inner eye, and establish contact, rapport (as Rainer Maria Rilke said) with another reality. (Rössler, 63)

Sound and colour strike, knock, move and irritate the inner eye and ear. These descriptions of strong activity points to a high degree of intensity in the experience of the subtle dimension of perception. The natural resonance and complimentary colours are here portrayed as gaining a consistency and intensity such that a contact with another reality is established.

Even if Messiaen in the quote above implies that it is the synesthetic experience of sound-colour that establish rapport, he also speaks about the purely visual experience of light and colour in stained glass as capable of giving dazzlement.

What happens in the stained-glass windows of Bourges, in the great windows of Chartres, in the rose-windows of Nortre-Dame in Paris and in the marvelous, incomparable glasswork of the Sainte-Chapelle? …from a distance, without binoculars, without ladders, without any object to come to the aid of our failing eye, we see nothing; nothing but a stained-glass window all blue, all green, all violet. We do not comprehend, we are dazzled! (Lecture at Notre-Dame, in Rössler, quoted from van Maas, Reinvention, page 33)

The fact that dazzlement is here used with regard to the purely visual without the synesthetic experience shows that the essential element lies not in the combination of sense-modalities, but in the intensification. Dazzlement appears to be an experience that can be opened in the midst of the subtle dimension of sensation, not dependent on the experience of synesthesia, even if synesthesia may be an expression of the inner relationship between the life of colour and sound. What stands out as the central aspect in this stage of the trajectory of dazzlement is the intensity that sensation aquires as sensation. An intensified experience of the subtle aspect of hearing and/or seeing reveals a dimension to perception that can take the perceiver beyond her normal self and consciousness. This appears to be the essential, also in the synesthetic experience, rather than the correspondence between colour and sound per se.

Now this intensification of sensation described here also has to do with the dissolution of form. In the example with the stained glass this is evident. Colour becomes no longer part of an objectifying perception that sees and identifies figures and forms, but an immersive experience of colour as such. Instead of comprehension and rational thought, a dazzling coloured light pervades consciousness.

In his analysis of Messiaen´s attempt to “reproduce experience of dazzlement in his music” (32 Reinvention), Sander van Maas has identified a musical situation that is similar to this excess whereby form dissolves into pure intensity. In his lectures, Messiaen has mentioned some passages in his oeuvre where dazzlement is sought to be composed, where it is expressed compositionally. What according to van Maas characterizes these passages is “a heterogeneity and massiveness that cannot be captured by a single aural “gaze”” (Reinvention, 59), such that the listener is no longer intentionally directed towards music as an object, but finds herself immersed in sound. This breakdown of the intentional listening has its objective correlate in the dissolution of themes, figures and forms as the content of music.

There is thus a double breakdown that belong together. On the subjective side a breakdown of intentionality, of thinking and sensation as intentionally structured subject-object consciousness. This is correlated with a dissolution of figures and forms on the objective pole. These two sides of deactualization of the cognitive structure following the intensity of the subtle aspect of sensible experience, lead to the central moment of breakthrough. This transformative reversal at the heart of dazzlement means, as Messiaen says in the quote above, the dissolution of the normally given self into a higher truth whereby contact with another reality is established.

Blinding, excess, breakdown, dissolution

The central moment of dazzlement as a passage or breakthrough is presented by Messiaen as an inner blinding. We move from a breakdown of form, as what carries or frames colour and sound, from a striking and knocking, moving and irritating of the inner eye and ear, to the pure intensity of sound and colours. It is this excess that provokes what is the heart of transformation in dazzlement, namely the opening of a new sight.[1] Dazzlement is here an inner blinding, an excess that causes what was light to become darkness, but “sight sees itself in the moment of its dissapperance”, making of darkness a new sight.] [From a dissolution and transformation of the I, the deepest and most intimate, one is lead into “in a most high Truth which we could never hope to attain”:

the sounds strike and knock our inner ear, and these multicolored things move and irritate our inner eye, and establish contact, rapport (as Rainer Maria Rilke said) with another reality: a rapport so powerful that it can transform our most hidden “me”, the deepest, the most intimate, and dissolves us in a most high Truth which we could never hope to attain. (Rössler, 63)

In the score of his famous work Quartet for the end of time, Messiaen presents an experience that resonates strongly with this quote, both in the image of creating contact with another reality, and with the dramatic dissolving transformation of identity through which this happens. Messiaen writes here:

In my dreams I hear and see classified chords and melodies, known colors and forms; subsequently, after that transient phase, I pass into the unreal and undergo a swirling, a gyrating copenetration of superhuman sounds and colors. These swords of fire, streams of blue-orange lava, these sudden stars: behold the confusion, behold the rainbows! [Quartor pour la fin de temps, page, translation taken from van Maas, page 32]

A further indication about the nature of this stage of breakthrough in dazzlement is given in the Notre-Dame lecture whene Messiaen refers to a saying by the Dutch mystic Jan van Ruusbruec: “Contemplation sees something, but what does it see? An excellence above all, which is not one thing, nor another” (Rössler 64).

Messiaen does not discuss these statements, but he orders them after each other in such a way as to build an image of a process. The quote is probably Messiaen´s own rephrasing of Ruusbruec, but if we look at a central passage from what is often considered Ruusbruec´s major work and which could very well be the one Messiaen has in mind – at least the same idea is expressed here as we will see – then dazzlement as breakthrough from sensible to spiritual perception becomes visible, and we can understand more of why Messiaen refers to Ruusbroeck at this place. Ruusbruec writes about the state of inner contemplative life:

Through this divine light – and as regards their uncreated being – they see, feel, and find themselves to be the same simple ground from out of which the resplendence shines without measure in a divine way and in which it eternally abides devoid of particular form according to the simplicity of the divine essence. For this reason interior, contemplative persons will go out in accordance with the mode of their contemplation, above and beyond reason and distinction and their own created being. Through an eternal act of gazing accomplished by means of the unborn light, they are transformed (ghetransformeert) and become one with that same light with which they see and which they see. It is in this way that contemplatives pursue the eternal image to which they have been created; they contemplate God and all things without distinction in a simple act of seeing in the divine resplendence. [Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals and other Works, Translated by James A. Wiseman, Paulist Press, New York, 1985, page 150]

This passage is from The Spiritual Espousal and describes the contemplative life in the pure uncreated light; seeing is one with the light which is seen. Here Ruusbroec says one “contemplate God and all things without distinction in a simple act of seeing in the divine resplendence.” [ibid] It´s not clear if this is the place Messiaen is having in mind, but it clearly resonates with his reference to a contemplation which sees an excellence above all which is not one thing nor another. This lack of form and distinction in the contemplative seeing is presented by Messiaen as being part of the elevation of consciousness beyond “words, thoughts, concepts”. (Rössler 64). This is also expressed in the quote by Ruusbroeck, as an act of going “above and beyond reason and distinction and their own created being.”

[FOOTNOTE: Messiaen´s Fransciscan leaning also seems to shine through here. For him the breakthrough leaves behind concepts and thoughts, rather than presenting the elevation as something that happens precisely in and through the faculty of thinking, as in Thomas Aquinas, which, even if Messiaen refers frequently to him, in this regard differs from Messiaen´s more Fransciscan position. Sander van Maas makes a very interesting and attentive observation on this point. Refering to a quotation from Messiaen where he says that ‘‘The summit of contemplation is a dazzlement, therefore an excess of truth,’’ van Maas comments: “In fact, the connective ‘‘therefore’’ (donc) points at a creative misreading on the part of Messiaen. Aquinas uses the image of blinding in the metaphor of the bat that cannot see the sun because it shines too brightly (excessum luminus; blinding is not a word used here).105 Aquinas uses this metaphor, however, to express a thought that he subsequently rejects. He contests the notion that the human spirit cannot ‘‘see’’ (that is, understand) God, that there would be an essential and insurmountable disproportion between the human spirit and God, as expressed in the bat metaphor. Therefore, Aquinas believes that a purely negative approach to God (as advanced by Dionysius the Areopagite, whom he quotes) does not suffice, and he indicates various positive relations between the spirit and God. Thus, Messiaen appears to contradict Aquinas in the matter of dazzlement, when he claims that dazzlement is in itself an expression of our positive relation to God. What we see here is an example of the implicit debate that the ‘‘Franciscan’’ Messiaen, in the Augustinian tradition of the Franciscans (Bonaventure in particular), is having with the thought of Aquinas.” Sander van Maas, The Reinvention, page 36. For Messiaen, as well as for Ruusbroec, thoughts and concepts are left behind in a move beyond intellectual comprehension, as a passage into an ecstatic experience of spiritual life and light: A seeing which sees nothing but an excellence, nothing but a truth into which one is dissolved. ]

Stirb und werde: Messiaen and Transcendental Empiricism

As the quotes above show, what Messiaen articulates as dazzlement is a passage which also means a partial arrival. As a result of the reversal inside the breakdown that takes place at the heart of metamorphosis, a new sight is opened, and this sight is visibility immanent to light itself. But this blinding, dissolution of the I, and rebirth of seeing as the life of the uncreated light, is arguably another way of expressing a process of dying and resurrection. Such a transformative event is integral to the contemplative tradition. The old self and identity must die away for a new one to be resurrected out of nothingness.

Messiaen expresses the possibility of a foretaste of the beyond as an experience of the life of resurrection. In his Traité de Rythme, de Couleur et d’Ornithologie he claims that “in the life of the Resurrection we will live in a duration malleable and transformable” as opposed to the experience of time as it is given to us in the earthly physical and psychological dispositions. [Messiaen, Traité de Rythme, de Couleur et d’Ornithologie, Tome III (Paris: Alphonse Leduc, 1996), 353-54. Quoted from Benedict Taylor, Time and Eternity in Messiaen, ] If we connect this with his statement about the directional meaning of music, this is a spiritual life in which “time is a space, sound is a colour, space is a complex of superimposed times, sound-complexes exist at the same time as complexes of colour” (Rössler 10). Such an experience is the foretaste of the next world according to Messiaen, and music and musician can help bring about such a foretaste.

With this claims Messiaen places himself in a long Christian tradition in which religious life and faith has a mystical horizon. Contemplative practice revolves not only around the development of moral virtues and faith, but also seeks to develop the spiritual senses which makes it possible, to various degrees for different authors, to apprehend the divine here and now as expressing itself in this world. Messiaen clearly places his musical practice in this perspective. Stephen Schloesser writes that Messiaen “not only held on to religious faith; he pushed belief in divine immanence to its extreme precisely through his representations of transcendence.” (Stephen Schloesser, The Charm of Impossibilities: Mystical Surrealism as Contemplative Voluptuousness, in Messiaen the Theologian, Ed. Andrew Shenton, Ashgate, 2010, Farnham, page 166) These musical representations served not primarily belief in religious events of the past and future, but “aims at immanence – which is to say presence”, [ibid] or dazzlement as a mystical breakthrough here and now. And as we have seen, it is possible to reconstruct a practice that served Messiaen in his musical creations, and to learn from this to develop a contemplative approach to musical practice.

The spiritual descriptions are of course taken from Messiaen´s Catholic universe. But they can also, depending on the reader´s orientation, be read according to a universal spirituality that animates a creative engagement with the perceptible world. As such we can also read this trajectory in light of the philosophical transcendental empiricism that Deleuze claimed belongs to art when it “leaves the domain of representation in order to become “experience”, transcendental empiricism or science of the sensible.” As we saw in the presentation of that philosophical program, this required that “we apprehend directly in the sensible that which can only be sensed, the very being of the sensible.” (Deleuze 1994, 56)

With Olivier Messiaen´s musical dazzlement we see a creative engagement with sensible material that starts with the development of the subtle dimension of sight and sound, of complimentary colours and natural resonance. This reaches a certain intensity and consistency when they strike and knock the inner ear and eye and brings about a metamorphosis of the apprehending intentional consciousness. This leads to a breakdown of the intentionally directed subject that is blinded, dissolved and transformed, where the faculty of listening is, put in Deleuze´s words, “borne to the extreme point of its dissolution [where] it grasps that in the world which concerns it exclusively and brings it into the world” (Deleuze, 1994, p. 143).

Dissolution and the act of grasping that which concerns it exclusively and brings it into the world means that the eye and ear are returned to the pure elements of visibility and audibility. They apprehend the being of the sensible. This immanent apprehension goes via the cultivation of the subtle elements of sound and colours until consciousness becomes one with their intensive dimension in an experience that cancels chronological time in favour of the time as duration. In this dazzlement, the old dies away and is reborn in a foretast of the life of resurrection, the Messianic event. But also Deleuze articulated this Event of all events:

It is at this mobile and precise point, where all events gather together in one that transmutation happens: this is the point at which death turns against death; where dying is the negation of death, and the impersonality of dying no longer indicates only the moment when I disappear outside of myself, but rather the moment when death loses itself in itself, and also the figure which the most singular life takes on in order to substitute itself for me. [Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, Translated by Mark Lester. London: Continuum, 2004. Page 173.]

In this way we can see a structural relation between Messiaen´s description of dazzlement and the trajectory of transcendental empiricism. Both describe what Goethe has captured in the last verse of his famous poem Selige Sehnsucht

Und so lang du das nicht hast, 
Dieses: Stirb und werde! 
Bist du nur ein trüber Gast 
Auf der dunklen Erde. 


Messiaen obviously lived quite strongly in the intensive dimension of sensation, and made this the source of his musical creativity – he claimed everything he ever did was based on the fundamental experience of natural resonance and complimentary colours. Now that we have seen how this has its basis in a naturally given aspect of perception, as well as the possibility of being developed and strengthened, the prospect of making music a transformative practice as part of transcendental empiricism may become graspable. This will be explored more in practical detail later on.

[1] This point of reversal, where the I is no longer what grasps but is itself grasped, dissolved and transformed, has clear parallels with Foucault´s description of the term, speaking about the reversal of light and darkness in the relation between reason and unreason: «Dazzlement is night in broad daylight, the darkness that rules at the very heart of what is excessive in light’s radiance. Dazzled reason opens its eyes upon the sun and sees nothing, that is, does not see; in dazzlement, the recession of objects toward the depths of night has as an immediate correlative the suppression of vision itself; at the moment when it sees objects disappear into the secret night of light, sight sees itself in the moment of its disappearance.» (Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization (1961), translated by Richard Howard, New York: Vintage, 1988, Chapter 4,) Dazzlement is here an inner blinding, an excess that causes what was light to become darkness, but “sight sees itself in the moment of its dissapperance”, making of darkness a new sight.