One of the most striking and haunting bits of the recent national AGO convention was a screening of the film Apparition of the Eternal Church by filmmaker Paul Festa. A couple of months ago I had stumbled on the trailer for the film on youtube. The description on his web site says it best:
In Apparition of the Eternal Church, 31 people listen to a ten-minute piece of music through headphones and describe what they hear. What all but a few don’t know is that the music is Olivier Messiaen’s monumental organ work Apparition of the Eternal Church, which the composer wrote in 1931 when he was 24 years old. A devout Catholic and the organist at the Church of the Trinity in Paris, Messiaen wrote a piece that sends some listeners to the heights of spiritual and erotic ecstasy. For others, the encounter with Messiaen is like ten minutes in Dante’s inferno. The experiment, then, is to have 31 people put the violent contradictions of Messiaen’s music into words. The result is a collective interpretation improvising its way through an aesthetic landscape defined by paradox. Resolution confronts eternity, eroticism asceticism, spiritual ecstasy physical torture. Together, the music and its interpreters conjure something like what William Blake famously called the marriage of heaven and hell.
The cast of listeners contains people of all sorts: scholar and critic Harold Bloom, film maker John Cameron Mitchell, musician Albert Fuller, Justin Bond (better known as “Kiki” of Kiki and Herb), composer (and Messiaen student) Richard Felciano, and many others unknown to the general public.
I had despaired of ever seeing it here in Cleveland, so I was thrilled when I saw it on the program for the convention. It came at the end of a very long day at the end of a very long evening of chamber music by Messiaen. The concert ended with what seemed like an interminable work for six Ondes Martenot, the strange electronic keyboard instrument that fascinated Messiaen for most of his career. I browbeat my traveling companion into staying for the film, and he was glad that he did.
Festa’s film is very funny in places, but by the end it is ultimately quite haunting. You can get an idea about it from the trailer. I spoke with Paul Festa later in the week at the convention and gave him some contacts that he might pursue to get it shown in Cleveland. (Cleveland Cinematheque and the Cleveland Museum of Art film series seem like naturals, especially in this 100th birthday anniversary year for Messiaen.) If you get a chance, don’t miss the film, even if you don’t like Messiaen’s music.