Deleuze reads Messiaen

Durations and birdsong becoming philosophy

Gilles Deleuze’s and Félix Guattari’s celebrated work A Thousand Plateaus contains one of the most noteworthy philosophical employments of music from the twentieth century. Previous research has reconstructed how Deleuze imported musical concepts from Pierre Boulez into his thought, but analogous influences from Olivier Messiaen have been affirmed rather than investigated in detail. This article reconstructs the philosopher’s reception of Messiaen’s ideas on rhythm, a natural basis for music, birdsong and a colouristic dimension to sound. Working on the premise that a Boulezian modernism shaped Deleuze’s general appreciation of music, the study takes off from the composer’s portrayal of how themes in Wagner overturn prevalent structures and establish new modes of expression. Messiaen’s role in A Thousand Plateaus and other Deleuzian writings confirms the centrality of this outlook, connected to rhizomatic ideals of continuous transition in all musical parameters. At the same time, Deleuze’s reading of texts by and about the composer highlights ecological dimensions beyond Boulez’s historiography of modernism. Despite scant attention to Messiaen’s actual compositions, the philosopher’s theoretical framework offers original perspectives on a virtual creativity at the heart of musical renderings of birdsong. The composer left a noteworthy imprint on Deleuze’s affirmation of a certain artistic autonomy as a precondition for the power of music to render time and spaces audible.


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