I was recently asked to provide my advice on learning Olivier Messiaen’s “Appel Interstellaire”, the solo-horn sixth movement of his Des canyons aux étoiles. I’ve performed this a number of times on recitals and most recently for a small electronic music showcase (for this particular performance, some very nice reverb was applied in real-time). My (highly subjective) advice follows:
1. Use whatever tool(s) you can to feel comfortable with the harmonies. Work, note by note singing at the piano; play with artificial reverb that allows you to hear the harmonies that you’re playing; play into a piano with the sustain pedal held down (although, contrary to popular belief, I have seen no indication that this is requested in the score for performance). Whatever else you decide for interpretation, this will have the biggest impact on your audience.
2. Due in part to Messiaen’s (estate’s) preference that the Appel only be performed in context, the part is only available as a rental with the rest of the work. The score is available for purchase, but the horn part is non-transposed (i.e., C alto). Consider writing out a transposition for yourself—by hand. I’ve done this once or twice; I’ve also transposed it using notation software, but the physical act of writing can be helpful to the brain, as it bridges the auditory, visual, and tactile senses.
3. As others have noted, translate the French instructions! A few of my personal gripes with others’ interpretations (even among the best recordings I’ve heard) have to do with ignoring or disregarding Messiaen’s words.
3.a. Many performers (especially in dead acoustic spaces) don’t wait very long during the “long’ rests, which in my opinion rushes the flow of the piece and connects the phrases too closely. Allow for the space implied by a long silence!
3.b. Also, to me, “comme la trompe de chasse / doigté de cor en Ré” means to play like the French cor de chasse players—and on a natural D horn fingering (and so with the naturally-tuned 11th harmonic). Brash, wide open, and (so far as you can retain control of the notes) very loud and perhaps even with a wide vibrato, like this:
3.c. I have always interpreted “sons bouchés, en echo” to mean half-stopped rather than fully-stopped, and I have found fingerings that allow me to play that way. If you are going to play fully stopped (which is both safer and more conventional), I think it should be soft enough that you avoid any of the edge or rasp that full-stopping can give. That said, consider learning to play it half-stopped! Messiaen showcases an incredibly wide range of colors that we can produce on the horn in this short piece, and half-stopping produces a better echo effect than fully stopping.
3.d. I personally interpret the squiggly line as a suggested contour, not as permission for whatever noises a performer might wish to produce. Others may disagree. In any case, I have read that Messiaen intends that to sound like an intergalactic tranmitter, and I’ve always imagined it to be the most personal part of the piece: it is the cry to the heavens, hoping that there is something out there listening to us. Also, if you use Google Translate, it is useful to note that “son détimbré” does not mean “it’s detimbered”, but rather “discolored sound”; a subtle but annoying quirk of automated translation is a preference for a pronoun to complete an incomplete sentence.
4. As others have suggested, do listen to as many recordings as you can. There are some that bother me deeply (most typically by abusing the things I mention above). My three favorites: Michael Thompson’s interpretation seems to me to be the most true to the written page; Jean-Jacques Justafré’s performance is likewise commendable; Georges Barboteau’s performance may be the most poetic and elegant I’ve heard, but his tempi are dramatically slower than Messiaen’s markings indicate.
5. Lastly, the Appel was originally written as a standalone piece, in commemoration of the life of a fellow composer, Jean-Pierre Guézec. It is a heartfelt piece requiring patience, contemplation, wisdom, and compassion. Play it like a prayer or a meditation, not just as a virtuoso work, and I think you’ll be well on the way to doing the piece justice.
Advice on Messiaen’s Appel Interstellaire by Josiah Boothby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to share this—in whole, in part, or revised—but please credit me if you do. If you want to use any substantial portion of this commercially (e.g., if you plan to make money off of it), please ask me first! We should be able to work something out!