April 2008

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The Unbeliever

He sleeps on the top of a mast. – Bunyan

He sleeps on the top of a mast
with his eyes fast closed.
The sails fall away below him
like the sheets of his bed,
leaving out in the air of the night the sleeper’s head.

Asleep he was transported there,
asleep he curled
in a gilded ball on the mast’s top,
or climbed inside
a gilded bird, or blindly seated himself astride.

“I am founded on marble pillars,”
said a cloud. “I never move.
See the pillars there in the sea?”
Secure in introspection
he peers at the watery pillars of his reflection.

A gull had wings under his
and remarked that the air
was “like marble.” He said: “Up here
I tower through the sky
for the marble wings on my tower-top fly.”

But he sleeps on the top of his mast
with his eyes closed tight.
The gull inquired into his dream,
which was, “I must not fall.
The spangled sea below wants me to fall.
It is hard as diamonds; it wants to destroy us all.”

Elizabeth Bishop

“He sleeps on the top of a mast.” Like so many of Bishop’s images, this one takes on a life of its own. What is it to sleep on the top of the mast? What gives the image such power?

Common interpretations reference Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress where the Pilgrim Christian comes upon three men fast asleep, with fetters on their heels.

They are Simple, Sloth and Presumption. Christian then seeing them lie in this case went to them, if peradventure he might awake them. And cried, “You are like them that sleep on the top of a mast, for the Dead Sea is under you, a gulf that hath no bottom; awake therefore, and come away; be willing also, and I will help you off with your irons.” He also told them, “If he that goeth about like a roaring lion come by, you will certainly become prey to his teeth.” With that they looked upon him, and began to reply in this sort: Simple said, “I see no danger”; Sloth said, “Yet a little more sleep”; and Presumption said, “Every fat [vessel] must stand upon his own bottom, what is the answer else that I should give thee?” And so they lay down to sleep again, and Christian went on his way. (From James Fenton in the Times Literary Supplement)

Another interpretation draws a parallel to the personal domain of Bishop’s life and her battle with alcoholism.

And it has been noted that the reference to sleeping on the mast of the ship has its origin in the Book of Proverbs…which reads in the original (as the Authorized Version has it): “When shall I awake? I shall seek it again”. The “it” that the sleeper on the mast intends to seek again is wine, and the passage that it belongs to is a warning against drink (Proverbs 23: 29–35). Here it is as given in the Geneva Bible (which Bunyan used, in addition to the Authorized Version):

31 Looke not thou upon the wine, when it is red, and when it sheweth his colour in the cuppe, or goeth down pleasantly. 32 In the ende thereof it will bite like a serpent, and hurt like a cockatrise. 33 Thine eyes shall looke upon strange women, and thine heart shall speake lewde things. 34 And thou shalt bee as one that sleepeth in the middes of the sea, and as he that sleepeth in the top of the mast. 35 They have stricken me, shalt thou say, but I was not sicke: they have beaten me, but I knew not, when I awoke: therefore will I seeke it yet still.

This vivid evocation of habitual drunkenness gives us a sense of the biblical meaning of “sleeping at the top of the mast”; it is one of two parallel impossibilities – the drunkard is like one who sleeps in the middle of the sea, or who sleeps above the sea. (The Geneva Bible explains the first part of verse 34 as implying “In such great danger shalt thou be”.) Sleeping at the top of the mast would be both precarious and giddy-making; nevertheless the drunkard prefers sleep to waking, and so, if he does wake up, he will drink himself back into a stupor. As the Geneva note puts it, “Though drunkenness make them more insensible then beasts yet they can not refraine”. (Fenton)

Secular interpretations also abound. Harold Bloom claims this as one of his favorite poems. “I walk around, certain days, chanting ‘The Unbeliever’ to myself, it being one of those rare poems you never evade again, once you know it (and it knows you)”

The five stanzas of “The Unbeliever”, says Bloom, are essentially variations on the Bunyan epigraph. “Bunyan’s trope concerns the condition of unbelief; Bishop’s does not.” Quite how he could be so sure he does not say, but he continues: “Think of the personae of Bishop’s poem as exemplifying three rhetorical stances, and so as being three kinds of poet, or even three poets: cloud, gull, unbeliever. The cloud is Wordsworth or Stevens. The gull is Shelley or Hart Crane. The unbeliever is Dickinson or Bishop”. No doubt generations of diligent students have been recycling this taxonomy of poets ever since. (Fenton)

While intellectually informative and provocative, these variations cannot capture the essence of the image in a clear and encompassing manner. For me, this image is dream-like, with a prophetic warning about staying close to the earth. What takes us out, to sleep on the top of the mast so to speak, is a highly personal question.

Bishop’s gift is a mysterious ability to empower the most commonplace into something extraordinary, repeatedly transforming images and bringing them into another dimension and realm.

“I am very object-struck…. I simply try to see things afresh,” Bishop said about herself in an interview. “I have a great interest and respect…for what people call ordinary things. I am very visually minded and mooses and filling stations aren’t necessarily commonplace to me.”

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I’m back from a weekend in New York. Within a 48 hour period I wept with grief as we gathered on a pier jutting out into the Hudson River to to pay our last respects to Morris, then wept with joy at the wedding of my life long friend Melissa who, as one speaker noted, “has never given up on love.” Both the finality of death and the optimism of a mid-life marriage have left me feeling the deep and sobering expanse of what life serves up to us. We are all being asked to learn how to hold extremes in our consciousness. On every level.

From the interior landscape to the larger terrain: Another domain where extremes are being challenged is in the high stakes battle over art pedagogy. Miami Beach real estate developer Craig Robins announced plans to start a high profile “graduate program” to help Bilbao-ize Miami Beach into a major art center and destination site. Clearly a savvy businessman and marketer, Robins is approaching the creation of this program, called Art + Research, with the endorsing imprimatur of leading art world luminaries. His project, whether timely and appropriate for this 21st century or a vapid smoke screen for yet another money making venture, is as sophisticated as a mutli-million dollar corporate branding campaign. Art education as big business. Is the next step an IPO?

Here’s an excerpt from an article about his proposed initiative in New York Magazine:

The University of Miami–operated venture already has an impressive roster of New Yorkers onboard. Founding faculty include artists Liam Gillick and Rirkrit Tiravanija, both of whom teach in Columbia’s M.F.A. program; Yale instructor Steven Henry Madoff; and White Columns gallery director Matthew Higgs (they will all squeeze Miami tutorials into their current gigs). Former Columbia art-school dean Bruce Ferguson consulted on it. And for added star power, sitting on the board of Robins’s nonprofit Anaphiel organization to guide the school are former Whitney director (and Robins’s cousin) David Ross, John Baldessari, and ex–Art Basel director Sam Keller. Robins will kick in $2 million to help fund Art + Research for its first four years, and the University of Miami has promised to help raise another $2 million.

Unlike at Columbia and Yale, there won’t be any formal M.F.A. degrees awarded to those who complete the two-year program, which will revolve around a topical theme that changes with each entering biannual class. Accordingly, don’t expect to see the “resident artists” hunker down in front of easels and live models. “Most art is conceptually based now. It’s art based on an idea,” says Madoff. “It didn’t turn out that the twentieth century’s most influential artist was Picasso. It turned out it was Duchamp … We don’t need to do foundation courses, how to draw, how to sculpt … You don’t need three credits for American Art History From 1945 to the Present.”

Such an approach, loosely akin to the Whitney’s Independent Study Program, has its detractors. “I like Steven very much, but I think he’s dead wrong,” says Robert Storr, dean of Yale’s School of Art. “The idea that somebody who has read all the critical literature on art can suddenly have an idea and make it is just nuts.” In fact, Storr thinks knowledge of technique is central to an artist’s effectiveness. “Yes, you should teach ideas. But you shouldn’t teach theory and then send people off to subcontract the work to somebody else. I don’t know how many times I’ve been in situations curatorially where somebody’s had a great idea and an absolutely lousy work comes out of it because they don’t know how to talk to the people who are the superior technicians in their field.”

The thing is, the University of Miami already has a conventional M.F.A. program, and many of its professors wonder why Robins doesn’t just support them. “To have $2 million given to this rich man’s fantasy camp is more than annoying; it’s a complete kick in the teeth to the art department,” says UM painting professor Darby Bannard. “We are hurting so bad over here for basic facilities. I spent two years just trying to get the floor in the wood shop fixed—it was so rotted out you could put your foot through it.” Bannard’s own pedagogical style eschews theoretical discussions. “It’s very simple,” he cracks. “I teach people to paint. Inspiration is fine, but if you don’t have the skills, it’s not going to go anywhere.”

Madoff groans out loud at that complaint. His role? “It’s not classes and it’s not teaching. It’s advising. The founding faculty will be hovering presences. We’re just going to give you a ton of information and allow you to live free in a place, have a free studio, and get to meet with other artists. Unless you’re a millionaire already, who wouldn’t want a two-year grant?” Indeed, Art + Research is so determined to be innovative that it’s amorphous. At a certain point, Robins waves off further questions on the details of its structure. “It’s not exactly clear how it’s all going to work,” he offers with a bright, knowing smile. “But everybody’s always happy to spend time in Miami.”

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Silence and solitude, as great teachers have always advised, open us up to new layers of consciousness. This week the layer I have been in features a cast of animals, each bringing its own meaning and significance.

A few days ago I opened the door of my studio and was overwhelmed by the smell of skunk. Being trespassed upon without warning can feel like its own small violation, but I felt more respect than discomfort. For a four legged, not necessarily at home in the industrial landscape that is South Boston, to find its way into my studio… Well that’s just plain heroic.

The next day at dusk my husband David and I sat on an isolated bench in the sanctuary near my home. As soon as the light faded, three or four raccoons appeared. We stayed and watched their self-absorbed scavenging beneath the bushes along the pond’s edge. Our presence there was effortlessly disregarded. We were, after all, the interlopers into their ‘hood who could be overlooked as long as we sat still.

This week I read through my dream journal, and it was full of images of animals–sometimes with starring roles and sometimes just lurking under foot. But as I reconnected with these dream sequences, the power of these animal presences brought me deeper into four legged respect.

I am acutely aware these days of how much we shove down, choose to ignore, refuse to see or feel. Being pragmatic, committed to putting one foot in front of the other, day after day, requires a specialized version of selective neglect. Meanwhile so much is going on, in us as well as around us, that we simply chose not to pay attention to. I need and want more receptivity, more sensitivity, not less.

The legendary symbolism of skunks and raccoons, Native American and otherwise, brought another layer of meaning to my encounters this week. This account rang true for me:

Of course a chunk of animal symbolism of the skunk deals with the pungent odor of its spray let off when it’s threatened.

Just think what a remarkable defense mechanism: Nonviolent, passive, effective. The skunk sends a message to would-be predators: “Nothing personal, just back off and nobody gets hurt.”

This unique method of self-protection and the way a skunk handles its predators is symbolic of:
· Defense
· Prudence
· Protection
· Confidence
· Awareness
· Pacification
· Effectiveness
· Good judgement

We would all do well to take this animal symbolism from the skunk: Do no harm. Indeed, as a totem animal, the skunk asks us to defend ourselves effectively, without causing further conflict.

Interestingly, the skunk would prefer to be even less assertive. You see, it takes over a week to reproduce its stinky juices after using them (their glands are only good for about 4 sprays). Ergo, the skunk is 100% sure it must spray before doing so as this defense tool is a commodity in the wild – not to be wasted on false alarms.

In recognizing this, we see the skunk is the ultimate pacifist, and by adopting its peace-loving ways we may obtain the carefree lifestyle this creature enjoys.

Carefree indeed, the skunk has very few predators because most of the animal kingdom recognize its tell-tale markings and know from wildlife scuttlebutt the skunk is not to be fooled with. As such, the skunk goes about its business with aplomb, and has an innocent quality that few wild creatures have the luxury of exhibiting.

Other animal symbolism of the skunk include:
· Introspection
· Innocence
· Assurance
· Patience
· Silence
· Peace

Those with the skunk as their animal totem are naturally buoyant. They go through life with a calm assurance, and exude a peaceful energy that is extremely attractive to others.

Call upon the spirit of the skunk when you need quality judgment in a situation – particularly if you’re in a stressful state, or someone is pushing your buttons. The skunk will ease you out of the situation with deft and diplomacy.

The skunk can also help calm jangled nerves, and help to center ourselves into a quiet, peaceful state.

Claims to portentious meaning are not quite as generous for the raccoon as they are for the skunk. A number of traditions refer to the symbolism of disguise, to misleading appearances and the masking of truth. On a more positive note, reference is also made to the raccoon’s legendary ability to thrive in a variety of environments and situations.

I feel schooled by the four leggeds, and grateful for it.

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I’ve been in my studio all week, doing very little in the way of art making. In my vigil of just sitting, I have pondered this question: How is it that a juicy, lush stream of creative expression can dry up and disappear overnight? What is the fragile chemistry of the brain or the body (or both) that is unkiltered by grief and suffering?

Sometimes sorrow can bring on an outpouring of expression. The number of exquisite poems birthed from the fractured shards of a broken heart is not insignificant. At the same time, I know of artists and writers who have gone lights out for years because of a deep loss.

The question feels more rhetorical than answerable. But thinking about it so much has led to research, and the exploration of its rational/scientific manifestation is a kind of palliative distraction.

Here’s an interesting extract I found in the Harvard Gazette. The work of Alice Flaherty, a neurologist at Harvard and the author of The Midnight Disease, is featured in this piece:

The notion of muse as a “divine voice” or an inspiration from some ethereal source intrigues Flaherty. But for her, writing, and not being able to write when you want to, come from interactions between and changes in specific areas of the brain. The muse, in other words, is merely a matter of making the right brain connections.

The limbic system, a ring-shaped cluster of cells deep in the brain, provides the emotion push. Many nerve fibers connect it to the temporal lobes, areas behind the ears that understand words and give rise to ideas. Finally, the frontal lobe, behind your forehead, serves as a critical organizer and editor, penciling out bad phrases and ideas.

“It’s likely that writing and other creative work involve a push-pull interaction between the frontal and temporal lobes,” Flaherty speculates. If the temporal lobe activity holds sway, an aspiring scribe may turn out 600 logorrheic pages. If the temporal lobes are restrained by frontal lobe changes, the result might be pinched and timid.

Most academics regard the study of creativity as what Flaherty calls “intellectually unhygienic…”

In planning are more cerebral tests that would rely on brain scans to show actual differences in brain activity when the muse is rampant and when it hits a wall. If Flaherty’s theory is correct, brain cells in the temporal and frontal lobes should crackle with different patterns of activity.

Another technique that may influence as well as map the paths of creative activity involves passing a magnetic wand over the heads of people. Called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), it has increased creativity when applied to the frontal lobes in preliminary studies at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

“Such testing should give us information, never available before, about what goes on in the brain during creativity, and what doesn’t go on when it’s blocked.” Flaherty notes…

What about people who believe they have something to say but can’t get it out? Traditional remedies like alcohol, or sticking to the task even when nothing is flowing are not going to break the block. “Repeatedly failing at the same attempt is probably a frontal lobe malfunction that makes it hard for someone to give up a faulty strategy,” Flaherty says. “This condition is best treated by taking a break.” John Keats, the English poet, treated his writer’s block by stopping and getting dressed in his best clothes.

I quite like that phrase, “intellectually unhygienic”. But I’ll take my chances.

And as for Keats’ solution, maybe I’ll give the haberdashery cure a try…

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Light and Forms, by John Walker (courtesy of Nielsen Gallery)

One of Boston’s best galleries, the Nielsen Gallery on Newbury Street, recently featured a retrospective of the work of Boston painter John Walker. Born in England and now director of the graduate school of painting at Boston University, Walker is a major force field in the painting space of New England.

I’ve been a fan of his work for a long time. But this show had paintings on display that were so overwhelming I could barely keep myself upright. Every once in a while that happens, coming upon work so powerful and exquisite that it physically hurts to look at it and be with it. This intense somatic reaction sometimes knocks me out of my equilibrium for days.

Walker is a painter’s painter. His strokes are wet and lush, earthy and sensuous. Color and image are bold, risky, wild. They pulsate. His hand has mastered invitationality, the irresistible “climb in here” energy.

Boston Globe art critic Cate McQuaid began her review of the show with these words:

There’s something Shakespearean about John Walker’s paintings. His forms create a restless, driving poetry.

His paint reads as an essential force of life. Big canvases squirm with hurt and wrestle with pride. Their brooding expressionism shimmers between abstraction and representation.

Yes, yes, and more.

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Elatia Harris left a comment here yesterday that is too apropos to not share. Thank you Elatia.

I do understand what you’re going through. People our age either know what it is to see their friends dying or they don’t yet know but soon will. Looking back on it all — and, alas, living with the certainty that there will be more of it — I believe it’s a real rite of passage, just not the kind one can anticipate without denial or live through without almost desperate grief. It’s better not to carry on as if it weren’t happening. If it is happening, then it’s huge, and bowing down to it is the only thing to do. As badly as you have to get back to work, you don’t have to get back to work as badly as you have to let this happen to you.

Among so many other aspects of grief in this case is the truly uncanny one — that the number of people who knew us well through all our most important earlier passages is diminishing, the witnesses to our own evolution thus falling away, never again to flourish. The past seems so much more gone, so much longer ago. As a friend — an only child — once told me when her mother died, “Now no one remembers when I was born.” It’s too selfish and unbecoming to experience loss this way, but our primal nature doesn’t know that, and it is there that we are struck and threatened in the midst grief for the beloved other.

I keep thinking of the photo of the woman in Indonesia, kneeling beside the sea after the tsunami of December, 2005, waiting for it to throw her children back to her. It’s not clear if she fully understands they have died, only that they will be cast up by the tide. Behind her and outside the camera’s range is the place where her village was. It no longer exists; small wonder that she faces away from it, away not only from the loss of her children but the loss of the people who remembered her children. And yet, there she is — trusting to Providence to bring her back something that matters.

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The intensity of the last week and the death of two friends in such a short period of time have been a strong wind sailing me straight into a setting sun. I haven’t been to my studio for over a week. In spite of deadlines for upcoming shows I am allowing my hands to lie fallow, to nest the quietude of my grief. And while my sorrow has silenced my expression, I am being nested by a husband who knows how to nurture my sadness. Painting and sex are the two great revitalizers of my life, and I am at my finest when both are in flow. I’ll be back in the studio soon, but thank god for both of these life-giving gestures.

This passage from Seamus Heaney’s collection of prose, Finders Keepers, spoke deeply to me. I want to share a few passages with my poetry-loving readers from his essay, Feeling Into Words.

I intend to retrace some paths into what William Wordsworth called in the ‘The Prelude’ “the hiding places”:

The hiding-places of my power
Seem open; I approach, and then they close;
I see by glimpses now; when age comes on,
May scarcely see at all, and I would give,
While yet we may, as far as words can give,
A substance and a life to what I feel:
I would enshrine the spirit of the past
For future restoration.

Implicit in these lines is a view of poetry which I think is implicit in the few poems I have written that give me any right to speak: poetry as divination, poetry as revelation of the self to the self, as restoration of the culture to itself; poems as elements of continuity, with the aura and authenticity of archaeological finds, where the buried shard has an importance that is not diminished by the importance of the buried city; poetry as a dig, a dig for finds that end up being plants.

Digging, one of Heaney’s most famous poems was also the first poem where he believed he had been able to get his feelings into words. Or more accurately, get his “feel” into words.

This was the first place where I felt I had done more than make an arrangement of words: I felt that I had let down a shaft into real life.

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Laps

The following poem was written by Ann Rae Jonas, a close friend of Morris Arrari. She wrote it for him during the period when he was struggling with his illness.

Exercise

You make no art, you say,
because you have nothing to say.

When eye and hand in tandem
sketched draped cloth, a slender arm,
it was statement enough.

You are an artist and swimmer.
Forty laps in the night pool
say only, I go from here to there
and return.

Think of drawing as laps
on paper, strokes that restore
if not cure you.

To read more poems by Ann, go to Morris Arrari.

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My dear friend Morris Arrari passed away on April 6, 2008 in Maplewood New Jersey. Diagnosed with colon cancer, he struggled with the disease for nearly two years.

Morris was a man of many many parts. He was a fashion designer in Paris for thirty years, working with Dior, Givenchy, Nina Ricci and Salvatore Ferragamo. His fashion illustrations ran in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle. He also explored his hand in painting, drawing and printmaking. (An example of one of his prints is posted on Slow Painters.) In addition to his visual prowess, Morris was unendingly well read and verbally eloquent. Some of my liveliest discussions about art and life were with him.

On Thursday we held a memorial service at the home where he died. The house was filled with people who knew Morris, and the stories flowed out of everyone, effortlessly. The more I heard, the more awestruck I was by how far reaching his gifts were, how many people’s lives he touched, and how powerfully he will live on in memory.

Morris asked me to speak at his funeral, which I did with honor. The highlight for me however was hearing the remarks made by mutual friend and writer extraordinaire Andrew Kimball who shared the podium with me. Morris spent most of his last chapter of life in Andrew and Kathryn’s Maplewood home, so Andrew has been a witness to Morris’ slow exit. That witnessing has been a deeply profound journey, and one that I am in his debt for documenting. Here is an excerpt from Andrew’s remarks:

Morris said once he would choose to return to earth — should that be our destiny — as a bird, high above hospital rooms, stomas, the gracelessness of ordinary manners — his artist’s eye quickened by the earth’s spiny geology, its interlocking clays and ores, its patterned waterways, the play of shadow across the landscape – observed this time from a distance.

“I was listening,” he wrote a half year ago, “ to a beautiful song by Patty Griffin about kites while on the train from Long Island. It was about the dreams of childhood. I had spent the day with my sister, nieces, and baby Louis who was passed around from one loving pair of arms to another. I said to myself, how wonderful for this little boy to be so loved and caressed. I fell asleep at some point, dozed off from the rocking of the train. When I woke, there seated in front of me was a visibly perturbed man staring fixedly at me, babbling and laughing to himself, sucking a finger, fidgety. The song, the baby, this man . . . I wondered sadly, wistfully what happens to either warp or construct our lives? how fragile we are.”

The complete content of the memorial service has been posted on Morris Arrari.

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Composer Olivier Messiaen

As I head to New Jersey to say goodbye to yet another dear friend who has only days to live, the soundtrack in my head is music that speaks to that dimensionality, the one where very little makes logical, rational sense.

Olivier Messiaen’s music has held me in its power for most of my life. An article in today’s New York Times about 100th-birthday tributes being held around the world, and just reading about him and his music brought me comfort.

A few excerpts:

Originality may be overrated in the arts. All creators emulate the masters and borrow from one another. Big deal! The composer and critic Virgil Thomson routinely debunked what he called the “game of influences,” which he considered “about as profitable a study as who caught cold from whom when they were standing in the same draft.”

But the French modernist master Olivier Messiaen, who died in 1992 at 83, was truly an original. No other music sounds quite like his, with its mystical allure, ecstatic energy and elusive harmonic language, grounded yet ethereal. Rhythmically his pieces slip suddenly from timeless contemplation to riotous agitation then back again, sometimes by the measure. In the introduction to his 1985 book on Messiaen the critic Paul Griffiths calls him “the first great composer whose works exist entirely after, and to a large degree apart from, the great Western tradition.”

And this one, regarding his relationship with color, was compelling:

To Messiaen certain modes had certain colors: not just aural colors but visual ones. Throughout his life he experienced powerful sensory correlations between sound and color. As Mr. Robertson explained in a talk before the performance of the “Turangalila Symphony,” when Messiaen saw a rainbow, he literally heard a celestial harmony. In speaking about this Messiaen could seem a little peculiar.

Discussing the first transposition of his Mode 2 in a series of interviews with the critic Claude Samuel, Messiaen defined it as “blue-violet rocks speckled with little gray cubes, cobalt blue, deep Prussian blue, highlighted by a bit of violet-purple, gold red, ruby and stars of mauve, black and white.”

“Blue-violet,” he added, “is dominant.” Naturally.

Regarding the spiritual component of his work:

But the dimension of Messiaen’s music that may most set it apart derives from his spiritual life. His faith was innocent, not intellectual. As a child he loved the plays of Shakespeare, especially their “super-fairy-tale” aspects, he said. In the stories of the Catholic faith, as he told Mr. Samuel, he found the “attraction of the marvelous” he had coveted in Shakespeare, but “multiplied a hundredfold, a thousandfold.” For him the Christian stories were not theatrical fiction but true.

Messiaen espoused a theology of glory, transcendence and eternity. Religious subjects permeate his works, though not the Passion and Crucifixion of Jesus. His embrace of the wondrousness of faith is reflected in the essence of his compositions. There is a notable lack of development in his music, a denial of “normal harmonic impetus,” as Mr. Griffiths puts it in his Messiaen book. Instead his pieces seem almost spatial, like a series of musical blocks with juxtaposed panels that variously induce feelings of ecstasy, agitation, contemplation or mystery.

Finally, this personal encounter by Anthony Tommasini:

My only encounter with Messiaen came during his visit to the New England Conservatory in Boston in 1986. I will never forget the enthralling performance he and Ms. Loriod gave of “Visions de l’Amen,” an audacious, wildly joyful and technically formidable work for two pianos.

Taking questions from the audience, Messiaen was visibly moved when a young man asked, “Does a listener have to have had a spiritual experience to appreciate your music?”

“Not at all,” Messiaen answered. But, he added, “it would be the highest compliment to me as a composer if you had a spiritual experience because of hearing my music.”

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