These are dark times. Whilst reticent to add my voice to the liturgy of scientific commentary - both informed and otherwise - It is perhaps interesting to think about how the arts have dealt with such periods of crisis in the past. Indeed, for all the horrors of disease, famine, and war, the arts have often shown that they can provide a remarkable resilience for the human spirit, turning despair into something beautiful, powerful even. As we face the unfolding reality of the Coronavirus pandemic, it seems increasingly important that we look to the future with some semblance of positivity - focussing not just on the spiralling and hard-to-untangle statistics, but upon the ingenuity and capacity of the human spirit in times of toil. With that in mind, I wanted to look at some historic examples of artists responding to crisis - it is perhaps better for our collective mental health to consider what is born of such situations, not only what dies.
Messiaen and the Quartet for the End of Time
Perhaps one of the most famous examples, would be the iconic ‘Quatuor pour la fin du temps’ - or, in English, Quartet For the End of Time. Written by the French composer Oliver Messiaen in 1941, it serves as a sonic documentation of his time at Stalag VIII-A, a German prisoner of war camp. Gathering together the few musicians he could find, Messiaen constructed an unusual quartet of piano, violin, clarinet and cello - and composed a work that is defined by a sense of palpable longing, disunity, and even boredom. With few sections containing the whole quartet - and the final 10 minutes losing the cello and clarinet completely - the composition reflects more than the sorrow of the times. Often, one or more of its players are reduced to simply sitting at the sidelines, waiting for their turn, whilst the music suddenly jumps between mournful, lonely passages and almost chirpy trios that seem to recall the now distant echoes of a lost European culture. Arguably, its strange arrangement and predisposition for violent, clashing textures of sound (even if framed by the prism that is Messiaen’s signature lyricism), points to not only the horrors of the internment camp, but a self-evident sense of cautious hope for humanity, a sensibility perhaps wrung from Messiaen’s unwavering Catholicism. In 1941 - 2 years into the war and with no end insight - the world could not have appeared more desolate, more doomed. But Messiaen, for all that horror, was able to imagine a future that appeared to accept the unimaginable changes that society had incurred, and to articulate the possibility of beauty and joy to come, however sorrowful such imaginings must have have felt at the time.
Messiaen's experiences during the war would shape his creative output throughout the rest of his life. After the war ended, he began to explore radical new approaches to composition that have fundamentally influenced contemporary music ever since. After his release, he was made professor at the Paris Conservatoire - a position he would hold until his retirement. His students read like a whos-who of contemporary experimental composition - Pierre Boulez, Karel Goeyvaerts, Karlheinz Stockhausen, George Benjamin, Iannis Xenakis - with Messiaen's unique approach shaping entire disciplines of contemporary composition. His work with proto-serialism arguable kickstarted the movement, whilst his forays in Musique Concrete and bird-song serves as precursors to the field-recording and sampling practices that would inspire experimental and popular music alike. For me, it is his 1960's composition Chronochromie that is the best example of his evolved practice. Exploring the use of colour as a fundamental aspect of musical composition, as well as underscoring the complexity of the natural world as found in his fascination with bird-song, here Messiaen derives an unprecedented and powerful emotion that seems to stem directly from his wartime experiences. It is at times uncomfortably arrhythmic (to the ear at least), and draws upon a sense of unresolved tension that would later inspire countless film composers. Most of all, however, it is a work that seems to speak a new and developed language, almost completely shedding pre-war romanticism in favour of a more impassioned, more complex, and more beautiful sonic reality.
Perhaps in our current period of strife we can learn valuable lessons from composers like Messiaen. We don't know what the future holds, only that the coming weeks will be hard on us all, and that there is no clear end in sight. But that doesn't need to be a reason for unmitigated despair. Now, more than ever, artists and creatives will need to bolster humanities beleaguered frame - as our loved ones, our families, and our communities face periods of self isolation, and major disruption to not only their health but their livelihoods, the arts can provide some much need relief. For all the age old criticisms of 'art for arts sake', creative expression gains its power precisely because it points beyond the present - it underscores the challenges of the past and potentiality of the future. On our darkest days - and there is every reason to believe there are many to come - arts capacity to remind us that there will be light again, that we will, as a community make it through this, seems of the upmost importance. It might not be able to offer pragmatic solutions to the visible problems we face, but all the same, art can provide us - as it did for Messiaen - with power to continue fighting in the face of adversity.