Visualizing Visions
The Significance of Messiaen’s Colours

Table of contents

DOI: 10.32063/0201

Håkon Austbø

Pianist Håkon Austbø is a Professor at the Norwegian Academy of Music, formerly Stavanger and Amsterdam, widely known for his work with composers such as Messiaen and Skryabin. In 1971, he won the Olivier Messiaen Competition, and in 2013 was made Knight of the French l’Ordre National des Arts et des Lettres.

The project ‘Messiaen’s Colours’ was conducted at the Norwegian Academy of Music (NAM) as part of the broader research project ‘The co-creative musician’, led by Magnus Andersson. The preliminary stage of the project was devoted to a performance of the Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine at the closing concert of a Messiaen festival organised by the group. The musical part of this performance requires a female choir, a string orchestra of specific size, various percussion instruments including celesta, and, beside the piano solo part, an ondes martenot solo that is essential to the colouring of the piece. Valérie Hartmann-Clavérie played this on the ondes martenot. In addition to playing the piano solo part, Håkon Austbø, the author of this article, undertook the development of colour projections. The resulting colour part, to be played from an electronic keyboard, was performed at the concert by the pianist Sanae Yoshida. With the collaboration of the Oslo Sinfonietta, conducted by Christian Eggen, and the Norwegian Soloist Choir with conductor Grete Pedersen, an ensemble of students and professionals was put together. This turned out to be the first performance of this piece in Norway and took place at the Norwegian Academy on 28 February 2013.

The project was ultimately aimed at realizing a colour part for the gigantic piano cycle Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus. This cycle was performed on 10 August 2013, at the Jakob church in Oslo, in the framework of the Oslo International Chamber Music Festival. Again, Håkon Austbø played the piano and prepared the colour part, which was again performed by Sanae Yoshida. During the whole project, Ricardo del Pozo provided expertise on the software environment as well as on the artistic content.

by Håkon Austbø

Music + Practice, Volume 2


Olivier Messiaen with Håkon Austbø in 1988

Olivier Messiaen and Håkon Austbø in 1988. (Photo: Gérard Chauvière).

What does a rose-window in a cathedral do? It teaches through imagery, through symbolism, through all the characters that inhabit it – but what most catches the eye are its thousand spots of colour which ultimately dissolve into a single, very pure shade, so that someone looking on says only, ‘That window is blue’, or ‘That window is violet.’ I had nothing more than this in mind.1)Olivier Messiaen, Traité de rythme, de couleur et d’Ornithologie (1949–1992), 7 vols. (Paris: A. Leduc, 1994–2002), vol. 7, p. 198: ‘Que fait une rosace de cathédrale? Elle enseigne par l’image, par le symbole, par tous les personnages qui la peuplent – mais surtout elle frappe l’œil par des milliers de taches de couleurs, qui, finalement, se résume en une seule couleur très simple, à tel point que celui qui contemple dit seulement: cette rosace est bleue – ou: cette rosace est violette… Je n’ai pas voulu faire autre chose…’ English translation by Matthew Schellhorn, in Christopher Dingle and Nigel Simeone, eds, Olivier Messiaen: Music, Art and Literature (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), p. 39 (emphasis added). Olivier Messiaen / Olivier Messiaen

Video 1 Olivier Messiaen: ‘Regard du Silence’ (Vingt Regards, no. 17), excerpt. Performed at the Jakob Church of Culture, Oslo, 10 August 2013.

Anyone familiar with Olivier Messiaen’s music knows that his scores often contain names of colours. In his Traité de rythme, de couleurs, et d’ornithologie (vol. 7), the composer elaborates on how the colours correspond to scales and chords. After more than 40 years of performing Messiaen’s music worldwide, there was still one thing neither I nor anyone else had done: to present the audience with these colours in a live performance. It was the aim of my project to visualize these, and an example of how this turned out is given right away:2)See Appendix 1 for details on this video.

Video 1 shows an excerpt from my performance of the complete Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus, a piano cycle consisting of 20 movements, with a total duration of more than two hours. Concert performances with colour displays of this cycle as well as of the Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine, were end results of the project conducted at the Norwegian Academy of Music (see separate box), but, needless to say, the work drew on experience and knowledge gained over a much longer period of time.
How can Messiaen’s scores be translated to colour projections, and how can the technical demands be met to control these in a live performance? I address these questions in what follows.

Messiaen and synaesthesia

3)The author wants to thank Christina Kobb for her extensive and excellent work in editing this article.
Already as a young boy, Olivier Messiaen was fascinated by colours. At the tender age of 10, he marvelled at the stained-glass windows at the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris – a somehow mystical experience which ‘marked him for life’.4)Olivier Messiaen, Traité de rythme, de couleurs, et d’ornithologie, vol. 7, p. 7. (Paris: Alphonse Leduc, 2002). A decade later, the experience of meeting the Swiss artist Charles Blanc-Gatti – who apparently painted the sounds he heard from an organ – made a profound impact and intensified Messiaen’s earlier impressions of the connections between colours and sounds:

And I realized that I also connected colours to sounds, but intellectually, not with the eyes. In fact, when I hear or read music