Time Out Chicago

Quartet for the end of time…in space!
Mia Clarke

At the onset of World War II, Olivier Messiaen, a 30-year-old husband, father, organ prodigy and composer, was drafted into the French army. Months later, the Avignon-born medic was captured and imprisoned in a Nazi camp, where he met three POWs skilled on the violin, cello and clarinet. Messiaen wrote a trio for his stalagmates, Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time), which was first performed for an audience of prisoners and guards.

The origin of that contemporary classic is, aside from his profound love of ornithology, perhaps the most circulated bio detail of Messiaen. The Frenchman, who had synesthesia, dubbed himself a “sound color” composer: He said he perceived colors when he heard or imagined certain musical chords. In End of Time’s preface, Messiaen described the second movement as “gentle cascades of blue-orange,” the sixth as “enormous blocks of crimson fury.”

It was these sound-color associations that inspired a creative union between progressive local chamber outfit Fifth House Ensemble (5HE) and the Adler Planetarium. Although the museum has hosted occasional musical events, this is the first truly collaborative effort between an ensemble and the planetarium. A handful of Adler’s astronomers and historians teamed with a recent film-production graduate, Heidi Knappenberger, and an SAIC art student, Connor Camburn, to compile celestial images from the 15th century to the present. As 5HE (pared down to a foursome) works through Messiaen’s Quartet acoustically in the planetarium’s Sky Theater, with the reclining audience gazing upward, a Zeiss Mark VI projector shoots 360-degree images—photographs of the night sky, Hubble footage, illustrations of exploding galaxies and animation—across the 7,700-square-foot dome.

“The crisp stars are truly compelling!” says Marvin Bolt, 47, Adler’s vice president for collections. “There was no way I could pass this opportunity up. I listened to [the piece], heard about the history and thought we just have to do this.” While the visuals won’t be tied to extensive color sequencing, the planetarium staff has kept Messiaen’s color theory in mind while compiling the footage. “We’ll be a little whimsical,” Bolt says. “It’s a serious piece, but the point of it is to have this visually uplifting experience.”

The 5HE members had considered playing the Quartet for the End of Time “for years,” pianist and artistic programming director Adam Marks, 32, says from Connecticut, where he’s a guest lecturer at Yale. Yet the group felt the piece, which clocks in around 50 minutes, was too dominant to be featured in its subscription series. French horn player DeAunn Davis suggested putting on a concert at Adler. “Our whole ethos is about connecting music that we love to things that are familiar to everybody,” Marks says. “Finding these cultural bastions of knowledge and community is a great way for us to bring music that maybe other people aren’t as familiar with to a space that makes them comfortable and keeps them interested.”

Bolt, who’s worked at Adler for 15 years, believes the common thread between the imagery and the music is the notion of transcendence. “That can be a frightening and standoffish word, but what we’re really trying to do is lift the audience out of the context of everyday life,” he explains. “The goal is to suspend the experience of being on Earth.”

Which, considering Messiaen’s circumstances, was undoubtedly part of his original idea. But for Marks, the Quartet’s history is not required context. “The sounds were created because of the war,” he says, “but what they really translate to is the battle between imprisonment and freedom and, I think, celestial placement. Those ideals occur in everybody’s life. You don’t have to have been in a prison camp to have that experience.”

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