The Crash Is Coming

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Recently, there has been a couple of films, subject matter both grim, that had as a supporting roll, the boundless North American rural landscape. I am of course talking about The Revenant and The Hateful Eight. What is it about vast grand, empty visual space that can evoke both, contrasting, sensations of freedom, awe and a sense of impending doom? Does space/silence in music contain similar affecting qualities?

I am lucky to often travel the AC 7 flight, leaving Vancouver for Hong Kong at 12:10PM, where it then heads north along the coast of Canada up towards the Bering Straight, where it curves, and comes down along the coast of Asia. The redeeming quality of this prolonged bout of air travel, is that it remains in daylight for the entirety of the journey. While the cabin lights get turned off, and the window shades dropped, I can’t help but lift the shade up for a peak every five minutes, often being hypnotized and starring out to the most spectacular, remote, daunting, yet pleasing, visions of the enormity of our planet. Or conversely, the minute nature of our person. In particular, once passed the Bering Straight, and heading due south, the view becomes an otherworldly almost interstellar landscape that only few (those who take a specific flight, departing at a specific time, with optimal no-clouds weather conditions) will ever witness.

Yesterday, I discussed with some friends, the good-old conundrum of the finite-infinite debate of the Universe. I mentioned how as a young boy, the thought of infinite space scared the hell out of me, yet again, filled me with excitement and energy without compare.

So, again, does musical space contain the characteristics of free-falling joy and relative insignificance?

This piece, while intimate, and scored for small ensemble, meditates on some of these ideas.

The Crash Is Coming, for Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello, Clarinet, Crotales, and Glock. If you would like to read along with the score, click HERE.

And is dedicated to my dear friend Cheng Pui Mei.

Listen to it HERE


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The masterful composer Olivier Messiaen is widely known to have had synesthesia. For those unaware of this fascinating neurological phenomenon, it is a condition where an individual experiences sensory stimulation from a source other than the principle one being activated. As if the smell of an pineapple, as well as being sweet and tangy, also elicited the colour purple in the persons visual cortex.
Much has been written about Messiaen’s condition, and suffice to say, it was no flippant proclamation. While many of us, if not all of us, have emotional connections and responses to music, and in turn can lead to an approximate translation into another sense, weather tactile or colour. Messiaen’s condition was true in the most quantifiable of ways. Where as you or I may, may hear a solo guitar and voice funeral blues, and, obviously associate the colour blue, or possibly black to the music, or alternatively, a smoking hot Cuban band with blistering trumpets and sex rhythm evoking wine red, or maybe a scratchy contemporary violin figure makes us itch, to this end, we all experience some sort of syhesthesia. However, in the truest sense of the word, the individual in question can reproduce matching responses over time with more detail than the average person. It is very well documented that Messiaen could consistently reproduce not only colours, but minute gradations and shades, when hearing harmonies of highly complex nature. Different inversions, and transpositions with similar interval vectors would produce a slightly different shade, but yet remain in the same family.
Anyone who has studied the work of Messiaen, or even simply listened to him with a discerning ear, can clearly accept that his harmony was of a highly complex and individual style. The ability to identify colours, throughout all the possible extrapolations of musical material under his control, and his ability to remain consistent in his declarations, is marvellous and awe inspiring. It is worth noting that, as some have argued, that sound/colour synesthesia could be reduced to simply a matter of an individual possessing an extremely acute sense of perfect pitch, and then assigning a colour to the varying sonorities. This in itself is a marvel and a admirable talent, but one that is more akin to an acute and prodigious memory. In the case of Messiaen, I believe he contained the condition of synesthesia in its truest and most magical form.
His primary musical, and arguably philosophical, influence was Debussy, who, while not known to have synesthesia per se, was one of the first composers (along with other of the so-called impressionists) to compose music with the idea that harmony was stemming from a source of colouration as opposed to function. A rejection of the narrative oriented romanticism of the previous generation This idea, concept, procedure, would basically change the course of music. (Aside from contemporary Classical music, Jazz musicians would adopt this perspective, and it could be argued that a majority of Rock is all colouration as opposed to function.)

By definition, as a filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick, composed with colour. As this recent montage shows, his marvellous attention and awareness of the emotional, psychological, and most likely physiological effects of colour on the person, was of a masterful level and one that he treated with utmost importance.
Would it not be a wonderful exploration to investigate the scoring used by Kubrick, in scenes displaying a prominent focus of a certain colour? Or how about taking various chords from Messiaen’s palate (which he has labeled according to colour) and scoring some of the Kubrick scenes with the corresponding material? If only there was more time in a day, in a lifetime.

Or how about science does us all a favour and just figures a way to make them revenants, so they can come back and work together.

Thanks to Pierre Blaizeau for turning me on to this video.

The Revenant

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After watching ‘The Revenant’, here are my takeaways:

1. Excellent casting of First Nations talent. Very commendable.

2. Mesmerizing vistas, canyons and cliffs displaying the gorgeousness and power of Canada. My home country’s northern regions, shot in all natural light, standing in for, and representing, in a way, both the addictive, sinister and obsessive white whale that our hero chases, the chase itself, and paradoxically, the grand and beautiful sentiment of patriarchal love for a son.

3. Excellent score, original and selected, by Ryuchi Sakamoto and Alva Noto. (The duo who I was lucky enough to see perform a few years ago in a Barcelona amphitheatre)

4. The use of John Luther Adams’ epic ‘Become Ocean’, which in the discussed context, in the realm of musical semiotics presents a sublime example of what Philip Tagg (check out his book Musical meanings) refers to as a ccomposite anaphone (musical analogy). Comprising of both sonic, and kinetic versions of the anaphone, the use of ‘Become Ocean’ serves as a sonic signifier of both the water, wind, and other natural noises of the unforgiving wild Canadian rural, while at the same time, providing a kinetic signpost to the travels, movement and mental transit, over endless rolling hills and valleys, of the characters within the narrative.

5. The use of Olivier Messiaen’s not oft performed piece ‘Oraison’ (Fr. prayer), scored for 6 Ondes Martenots, (which was the precursor to his ethereal, and more widely known, ‘Louange a l’eternite de Jesus’), underscoring the lead character’s emergence from a horse. Given the significant religious influence present in Messiaen’s music, as well as the biblical connotations present in the title (‘the revenant’ is an archaic term to return from dead), as well as the afore-mentioned Melville similarities, there is much interest to be found in this scene. This particular moment in the film would have been monumentally different, if alternate (or none) underscoring was provided. Wonderfully calculated. And performed by an ensemble from Montreal! Yeah!

6. The totally non-diagetic use of running water to underscore many scenes. Tying edits together of different locations and viewpoint. It is so skillfully woven in, and applied, that it will surely go unnoticed to many viewers. When looked at as a whole, the use of ‘Become Ocean’ which Adams composed to provide a sonic analogy to the grand deep blue, and the use of an actual running hillside brook, as a musical tool, provides some stimulating insight into the desires, goals and objectives of the filmmakers. I will indeed call you Ishmael.

Now go dream on this:

© Alex Formosa