There is an interesting event in Olivier Messiaen’s life. The composer was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis in World War II in a Stalag 8A, in Gorlitz, Poland. Messiaen recalls that at the time he and everybody in the camp were freezing, starving and miserable. The starvation was such that it heightened his ‘coloured’ dreams and this coupled with the experience of seeing the ‘aurora borealis’, coloured waves of clouds, led him to compose what is probably his most performed work: Quatour pour la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the end of Time). Deeply religious, mystical and completely aligned to Catholicism, Messiaen later went through an experimental period (1949-1951) when he composed his Mode de valeurs et d’intensités and Neumes rythmiques, the work upon which City of Poets is based. But hold that thought:
Now put the mystical Olivier Messiaen together with the phantasmagorical world described, in a seven-volume series, the Hyperion Cantos by the celebrated American writer of science fiction Dan Simmons, and you have what is not only an experimental work occupying the rarefied realm of music, but is, first and foremost, a stroke of genius born of what can only be described as hyper-imagination on the part of the American trumpeter Jason Palmer and the French pianist and composer Cédric Hanriot. With this the exploration of the an ‘improvisational concept’ behind City of Poets by putting the French composer Olivier Messiaen together with the American science fiction writer Dan Simmons Palmer and Henriot have created music based on the characters in Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos with personalities that align themselves with Messiaen’s 7 Modes of Limited Transportation. If this sounds like a mad hatter’s party, just simply spin the record and be transfixed by the extraordinary melodic, harmonic and rhythmic beauty.
You would think that although each track (minus the two introductions), aligned with Olivier Messiaen’s seven modes and enshrined in six characters plus a ‘four-armed, semi-organic character’ from Simmons’ book would be inaccessible and complex. However Jason Palmer, Cédric Hanriot together with bassist Michael Janisch have the colours of Simmons’ fantasy and retained the harmonic and rhythmic sanctity of Messiaen’s modes while making each of these musical narratives viscerally exciting, and telling the interesting story in a lyrical manner as well. Tonal colours are explored by Jason Palmer, Cédric Hanriot and the ubiquitous tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin using a glorious palette. Bassist Michael Janisch and drummer Clarence Penn keep a torrid pulse going, while still managing to join in the lofty improvisations that this music not only suggests but demands as well – just as trumpeter, pianist and saxophonist do.
While you might be able to find similar (musical) surveys so densely packed, historically informed or stylistically varied, you’re much less likely to find another collection so palpably connected to the music’s social and literary roots. City of Poets is not just fascinating, it’s to die for.
Track List: The Priest’s Tale (Mode II); The Soldier’s Tale (Mode IV); The Poet’s Tale (Intro); The Poet’s Tale (Mode V); The Scholar’s Tale (Mode III); The Detective’s Tale (Intro); The Detective’s Tale (Mode VII); The Consul’s Tale (Mode VI); The Shrike.
Personnel: Jason Palmer: trumpet; Cédric Hanriot: piano; Donny McCaslin: tenor saxophone; Michael Janisch: double bass, bass guitar; Clarence Penn: drums.
Label: Whirlwind Recordings
Release date: June 2015
Running time: 1:08:03