Developing approaches to jazz improvisation and composition via Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus
Through the looking glass: The 41st Musicological Society of Australia (MSA) National Conference
Musicological Society of Australia
Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts
The harmonies of the French Impressionistic piano school have already deeply shaped aspects of jazz that are heard today, both from a pianistic perspective and the canon of compositions. As Modern Jazz has changed and evolved, there remains an increasing number of jazz musicians who also work within the broadened field of ‘improvised music’ that seeks inspiration inside - but also outside - the jazz lineage. I too am searching for musical systems that relate to improvising coherently within a non-tonal context. I am also searching for harmonic tools from pieces that can colour jazz tonal settings in a sophisticated and detailed manner; and I wish to experiment with ideas about piano orchestration within these improvised scenarios.
Oliver Messiaen’s immense piano cycle, Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus (1944) is an excellent representation of his mature harmonic style, in contrast to earlier works such as his Preludes, which exhibits more overt links and influences from Debussy. The Vingt regards offers a concentrated, substantial backdrop (a typical performance lasts around 2 hours) from which to borrow and transfer a rich harmonic language towards improvisation. These harmonic kernels from Messiaen can potentially be harnessed by improvisers in expanding an existing harmonic ‘language’, and by progressing aspects such as ‘superimposition’, quasi-tonal and non-tonal harmonic settings, as well as emulating piano-specific orchestration textures. Literature in the field that deals specifically (and in sufficient depth) with the transferral of Messiaen’s harmonic devices to the realm of the jazz improviser/composer is almost non-existent, and especially so concerning the Vingt Regards.