Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Short Film for the End of Time

"And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire ... and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth .... And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever ... that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished ...."

Revelation 10: 1-2, 5-7

Olivier Messiaen wrote the Quartet for the End of Time after his capture by the Nazis and internment at a POW camp. Inspired as much by the circumstances all around him as by the above quote from the Book of Revelation, he immediately found the other professional musicians in the camp and set about work on what would become his best-known masterpiece. Scored for the odd combination of piano, violin, cello and clarinet, Messiaen had to write for the defects of any instrument they could find - the violinist had to play on a three-string violin, the cellist on a two-string cello, and the piano Messiaen played had defective keys. And yet the limitations if anything inspired Messiaen to greater heights. The world premiere itself was given in the freezing cold of a Polish January to an audience of four-hundred prisoners and guards. Yet through all those limitations, Messiaen wrote that he never again found performing circumstances as inspiring, or an audience as comprehending.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center commissioned the painter Zach Smithey and the filmmaker Tristan Cook to create a film based on Messiaen's work. The concept they came up with is, in its way, devastating. In the first half of the film, Cook films Smithey creating a beautifully colorful not-quite abstract painting. The background is a landscape, and yet there are blotches of paint painted over the top half. And the painting is never filmed in its finished state. By the end of the first half, colors are still wet, and moving all round the canvas. Messiaen, a musician who experienced profound synesthesia when hearing or even reading music, always thought of music in terms of color.

In the second half of the film, Smithey gradually pours whiteout all over the painting, effectively destroying everything he created. The colorful world is inexorably destroyed, replaced by an all-pervading blankness. Whatever this means is for you to decide...

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