In the previous chapter, practical applications of the Tone Clock were demonstrated, concluding that it can serve as a useful tool to embed twelve-tone techniques in the improvisational languages of contemporary jazz artists. In this chapter, I will discuss a compositional technique that also contains serial elements, yet with more obvious tonal references: Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition.
As well as composing an impressive oeuvre, Messiaen disseminated his theories and practices in a large number of publications, such as the seven volumes of the comprehensive Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d’ornithologie (1949-1992) and the earlier1 and more compact Technique de mon langage musical (1956), in which he explained his modes of limited transposition for the first time.
Organist and theorist Vincent Benitez (2008) explains that Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition, devised in 1929, originated from his improvisation classes with composer-organist Marcel Dupré, which implied the application of unconventional modalities as part of the Catholic liturgy. Benitez also claims a close relationship between Messiaen’s abilities as an improviser and the applications of the modes in his compositions, because in a number of passages he examined, “the harmonies lie comfortably in the hands, suggesting that they emerged from Messiaen’s improvisations” (Benitez 2008: 135).
The first time I became acquainted with Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition was in my days as a saxophone student, practicing Guy Lacour’s 28 Etudes pour saxophone sur les modes à transpositions limitées d'Olivier Messiaen (Lacour 1972). Lacour arranged the transpositions of all seven modes into comprehensive exercises that caught my interest by their mysterious sounds. However, presenting a book with technical exercises to enhance the dexterity of saxophone players, Lacour did not explain the theoretical or aesthetical context of these modes within the complex musical universe of Messiaen, nor its possible application to (jazz) improvisation.
In the context of this study, I will neither examine the role of the modes in Messiaen’s oeuvre, nor his practices as an improviser. My fascination with Messiaen’s modes concerns their options for (composing) improvisers to transcend conventional tonal practices. In section 1.4.4, I mentioned as my motivation for this study that I was unhappy with my writing and improvisations. Can operations with Messiaen’s modes satisfy my need for innovative harmonic issues as alternatives to my practices with the tonal system? Just like the twelve-tone related techniques in chapter 4, I consider the operations with Messiaen’s modes, discussed in this chapter as practical tools with the potential to help (composing) improvisers enriching their artistic palette. Since the focus in this study is mainly on the melodic and harmonic applications, other compositional techniques developed and discussed by Messiaen, such as his comprehensive approach to rhythm, will only receive limited attention.
The layout of this chapter is as follows. After an outline of Messiaen's basic theory in subchapter 5.2, subchapter 5.3 displays interval analyses of all modes followed by examples of basic mode embellishments. In subchapter 5.4, I discuss applications of Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition in the jazz practices of guitarist Nelson Veras, baritone saxophonist Bo van der Werf, tenor saxophonist Jasper Blom, and soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. Instead of presenting a historic overview of jazz artists who applied Messiaen’s modes in their compositions and improvisations, for instance from guitarist Jim Hall’s composition “Two’s Blues” on the LP Concierto (1975), via drummer Bill Stewart’s compositions on the CD Telepathy (1997), to pianist Pablo Held’s improvisations such as in “Gray” on Sebastian Gille’s CD Anthem (2011), I decided to focus on the works of Veras, Van der Werf, Blom, and Lacy, because, in their compositions and improvisations, and in the relationships between them, they show a diversity of applications of all of Messiaen’s modes that are relevant in the context of this study.
Then, in subchapter 5.5, I will discuss a number of examples of my own applications of Messiaen’s modes. Questions that will be dealt with are: How do my works relate to Messiaen’s ideas and to the works discussed in subchapter 5.4, and how do they contribute to my research aim to investigate techniques helping (composing) improvisers to move beyond their usual tonal practices? Subchapter 5.6 contains a generative compendium of melodic patterns, meant to serve other musicians as a point of departure for creating their own variations. In subchapter 5.7, the operations with Messiaen’s musical techniques in this chapter will be evaluated in the context of my principal research question and the methods discussed in chapters 3 and 4.