Guest Post: Pianist Christian Li on Messiaen's "Apparition du Christ glorieux"

I met and played with pianist Christian Li for the first time this spring after hearing a lot about his protean, Paul Bley-influenced pianism from friends. One of the youngest instructors on the piano faculty at Berklee, Christian was actually directly responsible for my spontaneously returning to Beijing for two months back in May (semi-long story, no need to digress here). 

We ended up overlapping in Beijing for two weeks in June and got to play a number of gigs with local musicians (links to videos at the end of this post), and we spoke about the possibility of reviving my blog's guest post series. Herewith, Christian shares some thoughts on incorporating Messiaen's harmonic vocabulary into improvisation.

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Brief Notes on Messiaen's "Apparition du Christ glorieux" (from Éclairs sur l'au-delà...)

Olivier Messiaen ca. 1930 (public domain)
I’ve always been attracted to Messiaen’s harmony. I love the refractive colors, the groomed dissonances, the fused densities of sound that are surprisingly light and airy when handled. I’m fascinated by the shimmering halo of eternity and unknowing that pervades it all; I’ve also been careful in allowing myself to be influenced by it. Messiaen’s sound is powerfully individual, the result of years of careful study and experimentation filtered through a profound artistic mind. In studying his music, I can easily lapse into banal imitation, and, unable to truly grasp what’s going on at a geological level, I fall into categorically vague stages of artistic grief. 

All of which is to explain why I’m going to do it here (the fact that I may finally learn how to consistently spell Messiaen’s name correctly is an added bonus). I will travel by audio example, with a modicum of explanation—enough has been written about Messiaen’s music by people much more knowledgable than I, including Messiaen himself, and I would rather not melt Kevin’s hallowed blogspace into theoretical, analytical mush.  

Our vehicle for exploration will be the opening measures of "Apparition du Christ glorieux," the first movement of his final completed work, Éclairs sur l’au-delà ("Illuminations of the beyond…"). Lacking the means to purchase a $370 score, I have done a bit of transcription:

Extracted Harmony from "Éclairs sur l'au-delà.." Movement 1 — Christian Li Guest Post
Here’s the original audio:

Here are some basic variations based on the color and shape of the first three measures:

Here are some variations with the top voice remaining stationary:

You can focus on changing the lower half of the chord, using different types of triads or experimenting with other shapes. This may then inspire some new ideas for the top half of the chord as it adjusts to the lower half:

The interval of the second is important to the sound of the first couple measures. Here are some variations of the chords with the interval of the second moved to different places in the chord:

You can open up the second to form a 9th.

The lower note of the second can also be dropped an octave down into the chord:

You can isolate the second:

Many of the chords can be seen as “polychords,” with two discrete chord shapes. Here are some examples riffing off of this idea, with one chord shape in the RH and another in the LH:

You can vary the texture, holding in your mind and ear the overall color of the original:

The chords after the double bar line are derived from the nine-note scale; here are some examples with chords being led through this scale:

Here is a similar example using the octatonic scale instead:

Here are some extended examples:


Christian Li is a jazz pianist based in New York City.  He studied with renowned pianist Danilo Perez and has played with the likes of Greg Osby, Joe Lovano, Dayna Stephens, Dave Liebman, Chris Cheek, Rich Perry, and Jack Dejohnette.  Christian has performed around the world, including at such notable venues as the Newport Jazz Festival, the Panama Jazz Festival, Jazz En Comminges, the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Blue Note, Birdland, and the Detroit Jazz Festival.  Christian is also active as a teacher and is on faculty at the Berklee College of Music and the Calhoun School.  
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Excerpts from Christian Li–Kevin Sun gigs in Beijing, June 2016: