Quartet for the end of the time, by Messiaen
I went to an art exhibition several years ago at the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh. It was called ‘Where Language ends’ and was made and curated by Glasgow based artists Ross Birrell and David Harding. Their work sat on the edge of what words could express exploring spaces of conflict and exile. The play between light and sound evoked the visceral over the intellectual. The rooms filtered light and drenched you in sounds. In one room, three human-sized screens were set up. Each member of the trio confined to a separate screen. A cello, Viola and Violin, (at least that is how I remember it). They were playing the trio from Messiaen’s extraordinary ‘Quartet for the end of time’. A haunting, wrenching piece somehow stretching upwards but continually pulled back into the world. It was written by Messiaen whilst he was a prisoner of war after WWII and is a piece of extremes.
I wrote these whilst sitting there, the only person in the gallery being given a virtual concert at the end of time. I refound them a few days ago whilst packing up and moving house. Messiaen’s music, at once redemptive and brutal still resonates now. In times of isolation and uncertainty, longing for sense, and recognising the difficulty in finding it.
A translation from what words cannot utter
In a red room, violent light,
Now warm, against nauseous yellow
And bitter blue. A calming threat.
A ‘Quartet for the end of time’,
Holy, wrenching separation.
We are alone.
Three screens, three people, three cries
Combine individuals symbiotically connected.
Total unity, complete still, utter emptiness.
The sounds stops. Illusion breaks.
The screens go dark.
Screens un- touching
A descending scale interweaves and merges
At once pulls, tears apart.
Painfully aware of what it is destroying.
Silently I hope for resolution through progression.
Each bow longing for sense,
Time devoured and disintegrated. Yet,
Pressing towards that final interval with an
Inevitability stronger than physical laws.
Together we are fighting silence
With desire that mounts to fervent climax.
Yearning to be together, the three sit alone
In temporary harmony.
It is almost enough.