Looking back, there was a degree of historical complication inherent in the trip: going to hear a concert in L’Église St. Merri (a church where Saint-Saens had once played the organ, and which sits next to the Stravinsky fountain and Boulez’s brainchild IRCAM on the Centre Pompidou) involving a piece I had written on a theme by Schoenberg. There's already enough there to work with there in the way of composers.
But finding myself with an afternoon to myself, I took a walk to another church, Sainte-Trinité, where for 61 years Olivier Messiaen was the organist - and where I suppose I subconsciously expected to find hundreds of gape-jawed Messiaenistes like me fawning over cases of relics in the organ loft. Instead, I found no mention of Messiaen whatsoever except for one line in the hastily typed visitor's brochure. Otherwise, the not-overly-large building is simply a parish church - and was empty on that day except for a cluster of charismatic worshippers seated in the front of the nave. Their leader was chanting into a completely unnecessary microphone: “Jésus PARDONNE! Jésus -Christ PARDONNE!” and smashing his hand into the hair of a woman's bowed head. (He was less clear on exactly what needed to be forgiven.) I was stunned by the violent juxtaposition. The evangelical's words, the stunted seed of some lost Steve Reich piece, amplified to the point of hilarity in the presence of Messiean's organ, dead silent. Je dors, mais mon coeur veille. The preacher's improvised, careless melody and Messiaen's improvised, meticulous harmonies - cohabiting as they could only after the end of time. Banalités/analitiés.
Perhaps I was wrong even to think of it as Messiaen's organ (Boulanger had played here as well), or to think of this building as Messiaen’s church (Berlioz was buried from it). Embarrassed by the service, I decided to try the door to the organ loft, but found it locked. The square brass handle was well-worn. But the passageway it hid was no more visible to me than my own inflated sense of the place’s history.
The next morning, what was locked at Sainte-Trinité was unlocked at Notre Dame. Walking to mass, I remembered that Piazzolla had had a fatal stroke while walking to mass at Notre Dame, and reconsidered the amount of cheese and wine yet to be consumed. Requesting to attend the mass, we skipped the tour line and somehow found our friends inside. They had told us the service was at 11:00, but it had in fact begun at 10:00 and was running over - so we actually heard the end of one mass and the beginning of another. Between those two granitic blocks of time and space, a perspective on the repertoire sparked - difficult to explain, but I will try:
The music for the first mass was entirely Gregorian chant. The final chant of that mass was then taken up by the organist as an improvisational theme for the postlude. And here was the first, really delectable contrast in the listening: first, the unadorned chant: curling in the air like incense, in a room nearly as old as the chant itself. Then, the organist's improvisation on it: a terrifying deluge of color, blocks of harmony so dense and variegated they made Messiaen sound dead a thousand years. (Actually - if you will pardon some technical jargon - I believe a theoretically correct description of the organist’s improvisation would be: he totally lit that bitch up.) It was annihilating. Whereas in the naked chant the ear sensed the space around the melody and expanded into it, in the organ improvisation the ear was crushed, thrown into a merciless vacuum, trapped and then compressed into a nothingness where resistance never gazed. Both the 1,000-year-old chant and the seconds-old improvisation - though they were sonic opposites - were completely truthful. They seemed like two distant sides of a single thing.
The music for the second mass was Mozart - excerpts from a small mass setting plus the famous Ave Verum. And in the temporal and spatial context of what we had just heard, the Mozart suddenly appeared so… small, so alien, so utterly false. In that massive context, you could feel the rhetorical blinders that common-practice music wears – its silly, self-imposed strictures. Those structural processes (which drive such an overweening majority of music education) appeared here as a blip on the radar; a short and fitful dream. That quite brief excursion into tonality (1700-1900, with some serious ambiguity at both ends) was here seen and heard as an arbitrary thing, indeed insignificant. Perhaps it was just a trick of the mind, but all I can say is that this music - onto which we map so much cultural authority - seemed like a trick of the mind. Its affected sense of itself - its persistent play-acting, of which the older and newer music was completely free - became painfully clear. At least, that was the impression in the moment – to say more than that would be to step outside the scope of listening itself.