MÉFANO Micromégas • Pierre Roullier, cond; Nicholas Isherwood (Micromégas); Kaoli Isshiki (Storyteller); Rayenne Dupuis (La femme du Saturnien); Eric Trémolières (Le Saturnien); Pierre Villa-Loumagne (Reciter); Sandrine Eyglier, Iane Roulleau, Olga Gurgovska, ChristopheRead more Crapez, Paul Alexandre Dubois, Bruno Rostand (Les Animalcules); Ens 2e2m • MAGUELONE 111.170 (2 CDs: 115:49 & French only)
This is the world premiere recording of Paul Méfano’s Micromégas, based on a short story by Voltaire. For those unfamiliar with it, as I was, it is sometimes considered one of the first science fiction stories, although when one reads the whole thing it is one of the author’s typical satirical barbs on philosophy. My synopsis is a shortened version of the one found on Wikipedia.
The story is split into seven short chapters. The principal character, Micromégas (small/large), lives on a planet orbiting Sirius that is 21.6 million times greater in circumference than Earth. He is 20,000 feet tall, has 1,000 senses, and apparently lives for 10.5 million Earth years. When he was 450 years old, near the end of his infancy, he wrote a scientific book on the insects of his planet, but because they are only 100 feet long they are too small to normally be detected, so the book was considered heresy. After a 200-year trial, Micromégas is banished for a period of 800 years. He decides to travel around the universe to develop his intellect and spirit.
He first lands on Saturn, where he meets and befriends the secretary of the Academy of Saturn, who is only 6,000 feet tall, less than one-third his size, has only 72 senses and lives for 15,000 Earth years. They join forces to take a philosophical journey together. When they arrive on Earth, they circumnavigate the planet in 36 hours, both of them being easily able to walk in the oceans, but believe that there is no life on the planet because it’s too small for them to see with the naked eye. In the Baltic Sea, however, the Saturnian sees a tiny speck swimming about and picks it up: it is a whale. While they examine it, a boatful of philosophers, returning from an Arctic exploration, runs aground near them.
The space men examine the boat; discovering its inhabitants, they believe that they are too tiny to have any intelligence or spirit, but gradually realize that the beings are talking to each other. They devise a hearing tube with their fingernail clippings so that they can hear their tiny voices. After listening for a time, they learn their language and begin talking to them, becoming shocked to discover the breadth of the human intellect.
In the last chapter, the humans are testing the philosophies of Aristotle, Descartes, Malebranche, Leibniz, and Locke against the travelers’ wisdom. When the space travelers hear the theory of Aquinas that the world was made uniquely by God for mankind, they fall into an enormous laughing fit. Micromégas, taking pity on them, promises to write a book that will explain the point of everything to them, but when the book is presented to the Academy of Sciences in Paris, the secretary opens it up and sees only blank pages. The end!
Méfano, born in 1937, studied with Darius Milhaud and Georges Dandelot but also attended courses given by Boulez, Stockhausen, and Pousseur in Basel. In addition to composing, he is also a conductor, and formed the Ensemble 2e2m in 1972. Méfano has recorded the music of other composers, including Alkan, Debussy, Gideon Klein, and a number of his contemporaries, according to the booklet, but this performance of his own music is conducted by Pierre Roullier.
As can be expected, the music is purposely exotic-sounding and “spacey,” with a bass singing Micromégas. This bass, Isherwood, has a cantate voice, but the music is better suited to a true basso profundo, thus he has some trouble getting down into the lower reaches, but he does characterize well. Japanese soprano Isshiki, as the storyteller, has an absolutely terrific voice: high, clear, with impeccable intonation, a crystal-pure timbre, and superb diction. Eric Trémolières, our tenor, was formerly a jazz musician, which probably helps in his approach to modern music, of which he apparently sings a lot. The music continues on its tonal-modal way, with the instrumental ensemble playing with very sparse textures, leaning towards lower instruments and string-brass mixtures with unusual opaque textures. There are moments of pure declamation, moments of pure singing in a lyrical style, and of course strange, “space”-music passages that almost sound as if they are purposely caricaturing science fiction movie music (without, however, using a theremin).
In all, it sounds as if Méfano was having a great deal of fun writing this music, and intends it to be enjoyed by the listener in a similar spirit of fun. He takes none of it really seriously and doesn’t want you to, either. The end result is a strange, non-traditional, but amusing score with more than enough little twists and turns (mostly in the orchestral writing, and most of them subtle) to hold your interest. Méfano does not consider Micromégas to be an opera, but rather “operatic action” or, perhaps more accurately (as it says in the booklet), a musical narrative. I suppose it’s one of those works that fit into the uncomfortable category of “opera-oratorio,” like Stravinsky’s much more serious Oedipus Rex. As the liner notes explain, the various singers often swap positions, turning from “characters” into other storytellers, translators of “Saturnian” thoughts, and eventually take over the thoughts of the tiny earth beings, the “Animalcules.” Thus, in a sense, it’s difficult to identify specific singers with roles, since their roles often shift.
The musical drama on the two CDs is separated by an orchestral interlude, marked “Voyager” in the score, which separates the earlier chapters on the Sirius planet and Saturn from their arrival on Earth. When the music resumes, we are in a more rhythmically and harmonically recognizable world, at least for a while. Méfano overlays some of his spoken narrative of the two space travelers, their voices quavering in a comical manner. (For anyone who has seen the 1973 cult science fiction animated film Fantastic Planet, it reminds me of the “concert” than one of the space beings gives.)
If you are unfamiliar with this musical style, you may become lost while listening, but I think that, too, was part of Méfano’s plan. He apparently wants his listeners to not only enjoy the humor of the piece, but to “get lost” (so to speak) in the discontinuous musical progression—it’s all part of the “space aura” he creates. In short, humor and mood are meant to override whatever form or forms he uses to create the piece, and he succeeds brilliantly. I’ve not heard any other piece of music he has ever written, but within its own set of rules Micromégas is a simply terrific piece, witty in that uniquely Gallic manner that earlier composers like Poulenc were also able to achieve. Every few minutes, he inserts little guideposts in regular meter and/or harmony to reorient the listener, but most of the time his purpose is to maintain that quirky yet fascinating atmosphere.
This piece, then, quite simply operates in its own little musical micro-universe. It has its own rules, creates its own atmosphere, and has very little connection to any other score I’ve heard, not least because the music, as much as the words, is a satire. If you just lean back, relax, and let it wash over you as a total experience, I think you’ll enjoy it as much as I do. One might imagine that a visual performance would enhance enjoyment, but since Méfano considers it more of an opera-oratorio, all you’d really see would be a bunch of singers standing in front of a chamber orchestra. If that would enhance your listening experience, fine, but I for one like it just the way it is. Just think of it as a really bizarre radio play!