Up & Down & Up & Down

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The St. Louis Symphony performs Messiaen’s Des canyons aux ├ętoiles… (From the Canyons to the Stars…), with David Robertson conducting, this Saturday at Powell Hall, with images created by photographer Deborah O’Grady that will accompany the music. Messiaen traveled to Bryce Canyon, Cedar Breaks and Zion Park in the great desert Southwest in 1972, and found inspiration for his recently commissioned work there. O’Grady walked the terrain that Messiaen walked, his music guiding her eye.

Bryce Canyon. Photo by Deborah O'Grady.
Bryce Canyon. Photo by Deborah O’Grady.

In December I met with O’Grady and asked how the music did this and what it made her see: “Structurally the music is composed in large blocks that repeat…there are various different configurations of this structure, but basically it is maintained throughout the piece. Messiaen considered that the geological part of the piece. He wanted the piece to be ‘geological, ornithological, astronomical, and theological.’ From that point of view I was continually led to pay close attention to the geography, to land forms and to compose in my eye how that might fit with the music.

“Also, in the melodic structure there are jagged, fast-moving melodies. In the Bryce Canyon movement the music describes the shape of the horizon when you see all the hoodoos going up and down and up and down. When I heard that I saw it immediately. I made that connection right away. There were definitely things in the music that suggested the land, the openness.”