Sunday, 1 April 2012

Quartet for the End of Time

I have just been reading Sophie's World in the bath. Rushing quickly past the image I have just conjured up for your repulsion, I got as far as the bit where they talk about the difference between Time in Hindu and Semitic culture. Apparently the Hindu model - adopted by most early Indo-European civilisations - sees it as circular. The Jewish innovation was to go lineal. The circle versus the straight line... and the impact this has on the way that we think about existence.

So, I went to see Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time (Hebrides Ensemble), with a special introduction by former bishop Richard Holloway. Messiaen was firmly in the lineal school - I am always surprised that a composer so dissonant could be so Christian - and this composition was inspired, in equal measure, by The Apocalypse of St John and Messiaen's internment in a POW camp.

It's a nice touch, having a reflection before a concert. Of course, the programme notes help out idiots like me who want to talk about classical music but lack the theoretical foundations. But Holloway's brief chat tied in the Quartet to Blade Runner, the contrast between Christian and atheist visions of the End, TS Eliot, the horror of World War II and a multiple choice option of how to listen to the piece (either as a brave statement against a final existential nothing, or a hopeful reminder that God is going to sort it out afterwards).

The Quartet might be informed by readings of Revelation, but The End Times it references are very much the vicious antics of WWII. There is a clarinet solo that honks a bombing raid, a violin and cello imitating birds as they scatter, and a whacking great piano part that slaps the rest of the instruments like a big daddy gangster on his mooks. It is not so much a meditation on the moment when Time stop for good (Sophie's World didn't say, but I think that the end of time will involve the Space-Time continuum being rolled up and put in the cupboard of eternity): it's a musical picture of an apocalyptic period of history, written from behind the barbed wire.

Uncomfortable art has been doing the rounds lately - pair this with Ann Liv Young's Mermaid show, and I am starting to feel as if Glasgow is hosting a series of philosophical, theatrical punch ups. And I did feel uncomfortable during the Quartet - the clarinet feels uniquely suited to acting out the annoying pricks of anxiety, and Messiaen's messing with the rhythm patterns (no, I don't understand how he does it, but I did hear it. Honest) is disorientating. On the way home, this gave me plenty of pondering about why I attend art - it isn't like my life is some cheery sequence of cartoon happy episodes - and what I want from music.

That's the sort of navel gazing I avoid in the bath by reading novels that pretend to be a history of philosophy, and so back to Sophie's World. And back to Time: and the dishonesty of talking about it. Yes, it might be circular, it might be lineal. To find out, I am going to have to get outside of it, and I am not sure how to do that without getting stuck there. Music does seem to have ways of suspending my perception of Time - those Fluxus numbers at Minimal Extreme encourages me to pretend I was falling into a Black Hole and the songs were a simple statement examined from multiple angles, simultaneously.The Quartet is a seminal work of WWII, and has an appropriate ugliness.

1 comment :

  1. I've always meant to read that book hoe come I've not done it yet?