The Abyss of Time

Work on PEAK HUMANITY, General Humanity’s fouth collaborative performance has started!

We’ve gathered in the mountains of Southern France to start shooting video material that will be part of the performance. The theme of the apocalypse led us, by way of association, to Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of the World), a seminal piece of 20th century music which he composed in a German-controlled prisoner of war camp for the four instruments available (cello, piano, clarinet, and violin) and first performed there in 1941 together with three fellow prisoners (more info see here). The third movement is for clarinet solo, and it is called L’Abime des Oiseaux, literally translated The Abyss of the Birds. It is an ambivalent title, but the accompanying phrase by Messiaen gives a clue of what is meant:

« L’abîme, c’est le Temps, avec ses tristesses, ses lassitudes. Les oiseaux, c’est le contraire du Temps ; c’est notre désir de lumière, d’étoiles, d’arcs-en-ciel et de jubilantes vocalises ! » Messiaen

The Abyss is Time, with its sadnesses and weariness. The birds are the opposite of Time: it is our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows and jubilatory vocalises!” Messiaen (my translation)

With this in mind, and learning about Messiaen’s relation to Digne-les-Bains, 1 our temporary base, we started out shooting outdoor; trying to render the opposition between the abyss and the birds not only through music (as in the concert hall) but through environmental performance.

For the first shooting we went to a mountain torrent near Digne where Remi had spotted a good location; he filmed me playing a variation of the Abyss passages on my clarinet leaning against a rock that I’ve climbed down; Georgia answered from the top with nose flute and clarinet.

Abyss of Time shooting at a cascade near Digne-les-Bains, March 2021

We thus worked our way through the entire partition, with the virtuous bird passages rendered equally virtously but very differently on the nose flute. But, helas, the water of the mountain torrent had its say, being louder than we expected it to be and not possible to cancel out.

For the second shooting we went to another location near the small settlement of Draix, the so-called Terres Noires, where our friend Sebastien Klotz works as a geologist collecting data about rainfall and erosion. The Terres Noires are an unusual geological formation of arid hills of brittle, black clay slabs with almost no vegetation. These are lithified sediment that had settled on what was once a vast ocean, lithified as black clay and surfacing with the tectonic folding and thrusting that caused the formation of the Alps. There, we enacted yet another version of what we call The Abyss of Time, with me cowering at the bottom, feet in the muddy clay of a runlet, and Georgia standing on a ridge and playing her nose flute.

Shooting of The Abyss of Time, 23 March 2021, Draix, Alpes de Haute Provence, France. Photo: Remi Marie.

The final video can be viewed here; it will open the ABYSS OF TIME part of the performance; we will be joined there by our colleague Emese who’ll translate the abyss/bird opposition into movement.

Shooting of The Abyss of Time, 23 March 2021, Draix, Alpes de Haute Provence, France. Photo: Remi Marie.

1 His parents got married in Digne in 1907, the city being his mother family’s residence; Messiaen is born the following year. His mother is the poet Cecile Sauvage, author of L’Âme en bourgeon, among others.

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