Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was a major figure in twentieth-century music. He is often regarded as the most important French composer since Debussy, and he was certainly one of the most influential composers of the century in any country. His music redefined the avant-garde, yet is often tonal, accessible, and strikingly beautiful. Throughout his life he was a devoted Catholic, and many of his works have strongly Catholic themes — for example, Messe de la Pentecote, La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ, St. Francis d’Assise.
What does he have to do with ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca can have two interesting and important effects — auditory hallucinations and synesthesia. Anthropologist Irving Goldman writes of drinking ayahuasca and hearing music, the sound of people singing, the sound of flowing water; William S. Burroughs writes of hearing obscene mocking squawks; I have heard the sound of people talking indistinctly at a party, a dog lapping at water, the singing of the plants. Participants in Rick Strassman’s DMT experiments reported hearing a variety of sounds, usually high-pitched, whining, chattering, crinkling, crunching. The self-experimentation literature concurs: users of DMT report hearing alien music and alien languages, which may or may not be comprehensible.
Auditory perceptions of spirit speech are a key feature of Amazonian mestizo shamanic experience. My teacher don Roberto Acho receives patient diagnoses and prescriptions during healing ceremonies from plant spirits who speak clearly and distinctly in his ear. Such communications are often in strange languages — indigenous languages, computer languages, the languages of animals and birds. Don Rómulo Magin, for example, is fluent in the language of owls; their language, I am told, sounds like this: oootutututu kakakaka hahahahaha. Outer space spirits may speak like computers: ping ping dan dan.
Synesthesia — what Benny Shanon, in his extensive phenomenology, calls intermodal effects — is also common in ayahuasca experiences. The poet César Calvo writes of such an ayahuasca experience: “The fresh air was something I could see, and sometimes a sound was like a texture of feathers that I could touch. All of my senses were one, communicated between themselves: I could listen with my fingers, touch with my eyes, sense those visions with my voice.”
The Shipibo shaman sees luminous designs in the air, which touch his lips and become transformed into song; conversely, the Cashinahua draw designs by the songs they sing, which function as paths to be followed on the journey to the spirit world. In the Tukano creation myth, the sounds made by the first-born child are the tastes and visions of ayahuasca, “for as soon as the little child cried aloud, all the people became intoxicated and saw all kinds of colors.” Indigenous myths from southern Colombia speak of ayahuasca-created Solar Men playing melodies on flute or drum, with each melody transforming into a different color, “creating intelligence and language.” In the paintings of Pablo Amaringo, many elements that appear purely decorative — multicolored spirals and waves — are in fact visual expressions of music.
And that brings us back to Olivier Messiaen, and a theory first proposed by Claudia Müller-Ebeling — that some part of Messiaen’s groundbreaking music of the mid-twentieth century was due to an ayahuasca experience.
The primary evidence for this theory is that, in 1960, at the Sorbonne Institute of Musicology, Messiaen spoke about a peculiar experience he had had in South America. He had let himself be given a particular drug made of various plants, he said; and for several hours thereafter his vision was distorted, and his senses of sight and hearing were intermixed, so that he saw sounds and heard colors. From this description, there is every reason to believe that such a drug was in fact ayahuasca.
This experience apparently remained important to him. The score for his 1963 Couleurs de la cité céleste — the title means The Colors of the Celestial City — for solo piano and ensemble contained notations of the colors in the music, although at this point Messiaen apparently no longer perceived the colors visually, and the purpose was to aid the conductor in interpretation rather than as a guide to synesthesia.
The second piece of evidence is the music itself, and this is far from determinative. Messiaen’s composition Chronochromie — this title means The Colors of Time — premiered in 1960, and is considered a key work of modern music in the twentieth century. The work is composed for a large orchestra with a wide variety of percussion instruments, and it is filled with rushing and percussive sounds. Could it be based on the sounds Messiaen heard when drinking ayahuasca in South America? The following is the first part of Chronochromie, the introduction, from a 1995 Deutsche Grammophon recording of Pierre Boulez conducting the Cleveland Orchestra: