Founders’ New Album Speaks to Our Times with Reimagined Masterpiece

Founders

On January 15, 2021, the New York City band Founders released Songs for the End of Time Vol. 1—their newest and second album. Recorded over the span of three days in November 2019, it features an arrangement of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, created by Founders’ members Ben Russell and Brandon Ridenour. The release of Songs for the End of Time Vol. 1 carries special meaning—not only as it honors Messiaen’s artistry and gripping story, but also because it coincided with the 80th anniversary of the original work’s premiere.

French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was 31 years old when his country entered World War II and he was drafted to the French army. Shortly thereafter, in June 1940, Messiaen was captured by the German army, becoming a prisoner of war and being relocated to a camp in a German territory that is now part of Poland. It was during this fateful imprisonment that Messiaen wrote Quartet for the End of Time. His fellow prisoners—some of whom were professional musicians playing clarinet, violin, and cello—were his collaborators in developing and performing the work. The piece premiered the following year at the camp to an audience of approximately 400 prisoners and guards, and Messiaen was freed a few months later.

As is made clear in the piece’s Introduction by the composer himself, Messiaen was inspired by text from the Book of Revelation to write Quartet for the End of Time. The Preface reads: 

“And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow on his head; his face was like the sun, and his feet like pillars of fire… Setting his right foot on the sea, and his left foot on the land… he raised his right hand toward Heaven and swore by He, who lives forever and ever… saying “There will be no more Time; but in the days when the seventh angel is to blow his trumpet, the mystery of God will be fulfilled.” (Revelation of St. John, chapter 10)

Ridenour traces the inspiration for the newly released album back to “the beginning of Founders’ existence.” The group’s first release, You & Who (July 2015), included a track named “Motion” that is a mashup of Radiohead’s Motion Picture Soundtrack and the last movement of Quartet for the End of Time (“Louange à l'Immortalité de Jésus”). This initial exploration of Messiaen’s composition in tandem with the group’s musical language led Ridenour to write an arrangement of Quartet for the End of Time’s fourth movement (“Interméde”), sparking Founders’ long-term interest in, and commitment to, Messiaen’s masterpiece as a whole. 

In early 2019, Ridenour and Russell decided to re-arrange Quartet for the End of Time’s eight movements to incorporate the sounds of jazz, rock, and other non-classical styles. 

“We are attempting to refashion great works of art and share them with a wider audience. Quartet for the End of Time is certainly a masterpiece in our classical music world, but extremely niche to the layman listener. By infusing it with other styles of music—and even bringing out the religious text component—we hope it perks the ears of people who are both unfamiliar and familiar with this profound work,” said Ridenour and Russell in a joint statement.

Further detailing their creative process, both musicians shared, “we each took the lead on different movements and received feedback from each other, and the rest of the band, for each draft. After many revisions for about a year, we had the complete ‘finished’ version.”

Their intent was to illuminate the complexity of the piece using a contemporary language. This new arrangement premiered in June 2019 at The Cell in New York City, and it was then recorded in the fall of that same year at The Oratory Church of St. Boniface in Brooklyn. This last location was “a nod to his [Messiaen’s] Roman Catholic devotion,” they explained.

Quartet for the End of Time underlines Messiaen’s focus on divine peace, the hope of God’s interaction, and meditation on better times in the midst of war. In the same manner, Founders’ Songs for the End of Time Vol. 1 was released at a time of gloom and turmoil across the world; a time when many individuals desire to inflict pain and fight for their own prosperity at the direct expense of others. The group’s retelling of Messiaen’s incredible story-turned-masterwork speaks to our collective reality where “there is doom and despair proclaimed all around us.”

“As we began the editing and mixing process during a spring when the songs of birds were suddenly audible along the blocks of a quieter city,” said Founders’ cellist Hamilton Berry, “we could not help but feel a resonance between Messiaen’s work and the events of 2020, which have deeply impacted the way we think about our time.”