Bryce Canyon, Utah
Photo: Luca Galuzzi
In the photograph above the canyon looks like a huge natural organ. The red-orange rock formations are evoked in the music itself - Messiaen associated the colour red with E major. In a 1979 interview he said “Bryce Canyon was of special interest to me. That’s because it had all those wonderful colours, and I wanted to put them into music. So, the piece I composed about Bryce Canyon is red and orange, the colour of the cliffs.” Quite a lot has been written about Messiaen's synaesthesia - if you're interested, check out the three dimensional maps of Messiaen's colour space in a paper by Paul E. Dworak.
Des canyons aux étoiles... was composed after Messiaen's trip to Utah in 1972 and premiered in 1974. According to Alex Ross the New York arts patron Alice Tully had 'asked Messiaen to write a work in commemoration of the upcoming American bicentennial. It was an unlikely assignment, since Messiaen had little love for American culture and a special antipathy for New York. His reluctance gave way when Tully, well briefed on the composer's vulnerabilities, served him a sumptuous repast capped with "an immense cake crowned with pistachio frogs spewing crème Chantilly."' Here is an example of the celestial music facilitated by this delicious-sounding cake, the third movement of Des canyons aux étoiles..., 'Ce qui est écrit sur les étoiles' - 'What is written in the stars'.
Postscript 2016: Alex Ross has just posted a story about the St. Louis Symphony orchestra's principal horn Roger Kaza who in 1982 played the solo-horn movement in a branch of the Grand Canyon and sent a recording to the composer. Here's a short extract describing the performance out in the landscape made with a group of friends including trumpeter Tim Morrison.
'Fern Glen Canyon is a tributary of the Colorado, with hundred-foot vertical walls thirty to fifty feet across. Dripping springs create grottoes of ferns, greenery, and delicate wildflowers. Tim and I hiked up the canyon, played a few notes, and immediately reveled in the lush echo resounding off the ancient stone. This was the place to record the Messiaen. [... ]
[The following day they assembled to perform it.] By now it was dark and the crickets were chirping. The strange tritone-infused music, with its weird lilting rhythms, seemed perfectly suited to this hallowed place of rock and time. Because my chops were weak, I had to record it piecemeal. Fortunately, the music contains many long pauses and lends itself to such an approach. After an hour or two of retakes, I decided that everything should be covered. We packed up the sand-infested Walkman and hiked back to camp.'