Off-Ramp | Off-Ramp host John Rabe and contributors share thoughts on arts, culture, and life in L.A.

Peter Stenshoel's Album of the week: The Power of Public Broadcasting

I was around before PBS was even called that.  There used to be something called NET, National Educational Television.  Despite the dull name, it frequently was the stuff of revolutionary cultural advance.  Consider Exhibit A, our album of the week.   I happened to be watching when some pianist (I have forgotten whom) performed excerpts from "Vingt regards sur l'enfant Jesus," which the broadcast's producers translated as "Twenty Glimpses of the Baby Jesus."  It was by some French cat I had never heard of before: Olivier Messiaen.  Sedate this was not.  There are fierce poundings in rhythmic bursts, chords transcending any sense of classical structure, then whisps of long held quiet sections.  Our little black and white Sylvania portable television was no impediment to the shock and awe of this onslaught.  I was hooked.  Minneapolis Public Library yeilded some Messiaen, but it was splendidly weird-sounding organ music, not the piano piece from NET.  As soon as I could, I purchased the expensive two-record set.

Here we have a piano work over two hours long with twenty distinct "glimpses" at the object of adoration; namely, an infant in a manger.  Each glimpse is from a separate point of view.  Yes, the shepherds and Three Wise Men get a glance, but so does Silence, the Heights, the Spirit of Joy; even the Son himself looks in adoration on himself.  This is not Christmas music.  It is Epiphany Music, unstintingly modern and unsentimental, drawn from the depths of Messiaen's Catholic mysticism. 

One of the fascinating things about the composer is his use of lush, romantic, chords, suddenly broken by imitation of birdcall.  Ancient Greek and "Hindu" rhythms are interpreted, and a self-discipline of note choices, Messiaen's famous "modes of limited transposition" create a spooky universe which slowly becomes a source of luminous wonder and rewarding listening.