In volume six of Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d’ornithologie, Olivier Messiaen uses the phrase “the pebble in the water” to identify a class of especially stark rhythmic contrasts in Debussy’s music that feature long durations interrupted by rapid rhythms. He invests these contrasts with an expressive logic built around the concept of shock—that is, the sudden stimulation of a static context by an outside presence. Messiaen unites various images—both natural and psychological—around this expressive pattern via analogy, suggesting that its essence is transferrable within a network of associated metaphors. Although for the most part in volume six Messiaen refrains from linking interpretations of Debussy with his own music, many of his rhythmic contrasts manifest the same expressive logic that he ascribes to Debussy’s music, particularly durational events that signify the interjection of birdsong within serene environments and that signal the striking appearance of divine power on earth. In addition to stylistic and semiotic correlations, the logic of shock theorized for the pebble in the water recurs more abstractly in Messiaen’s idiomatic views on musical experience and spiritual encounter. His interpretation of rhythmic contrast bears the marks of his more general aesthetics of shock, which in turn can be read as a reorientation of a broader modernist hermeneutic.
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