Olivier Messiaen

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:

Any thoughts?


  1. I was told that all medicines and helpers come singing and dancing.

  2. An aunt of mine who died a few years ago was one of the world's great pianists, Professor at Juilliard, composer, soloist, etc. She let slip one day that musical notes had specific colors. “These are colors the sounds told me,” she said. I will not list them all here, but, to give two of them, E flat was sky blue and A was yellow. She said two other composers she knew of also saw the colors of notes, Eric Satie and Scriabin. she did not mention Messaien, but here is further confirmation of the "life" in music.

  3. Thank you for that really interesting information. I would guess that synesthesia — like auditory and visual hallucinations — is actually much more widespread than usually reported, because people with these experiences are afraid that they they will be considered strange or even crazy.

    Of course, that has never worried me. :-)

  4. fantastic! it's the second time i join your blog, now finding your notes on O.M. (nice initials, right? i never realized this before...) as a musician/composer/pianist i am very deeply in touch with his music; it is a connection that raises rhythmically, often evoked by strong concert experiences. the last one was to listen a concert, where his orchestra piece "des canyons aux étoiles" ("from the canyons to the stars") was given (together with stockhausens incredible "gruppen") by berlin philharmonic orchestra with simon rattle. this was another a new messiaen to me again - very simpy structured, just long notes and chords played by the orchestra, as far as i remember it is meant to be played open air - the concert i experienced took place in an airplane hangar in berlin, anoher kind of "open air"...
    well this concert is half an year ago, but coming back to switzerland last week i read again the very carefully edited programm book. i was always attracted by messiaens - poetry, as i regard his introductions and thoughts on his music. and this time i was really paralized: i felt a very strong santo daime frequency in his pictures of god, eternity, nirwana - and, the connection with nature, the immense meaning of the bird's chant! although i know that he travelled a lot (the piece i mentioned is written during or after a visit to the u.s.a., might be especially interesting for you...) and that he obviously has a really transcendent visionary power of feeling and inventing sounds, i could never imagine him having had any ayahuasca experiences. i've to admit that i don't know the research of claudia müller-ebeling either, you mentioning her made me very curious of course.
    since i experienced the santo daime way as well as at least one and a half other - ancient original - ayahuasca traditions i am highly interested in the harmonic relationship between these lines, the "completeness" they can build together with each other, especially as experienced strong but different support by both of them
    (concerning health, heart, body and soul...)
    olivier messiaen seems to represent in the one hand a very intellectual european approach to god - the esprit francaise, a certain seriousity and christian monasteric nobleness. e.g. he put worth on declaring, that his music is not to be understood as mystic but as theological, a remark that astonished me deeply, but fits somehow into the whole story.
    on the other hand he has this very precious naiveness - in sense of being born as a child of god into this world, together with our relatives, the plants, the animals and, most relative to a composer, their singers, the birds - perhaps it's even better to call it "nativeness" than "naiveness"
    in this aspect O.M. perhaps gives an example of the ability of connecting these streams of light, which often seem far away from each other ( superficially regarded even excluding each other) - and evoked from this striking strong encounter: creating a really transcendent celestial cosmic chant of the human soul. singing to the birds!
    thank you so much for your hint, dear brother!
    much love and light, alex

  5. Thank you for this very interesting comment. I will be thinking about Messiaen in new and deeper ways.