Of the fourteen composers whose work was played out during Marina Frolova-Walker’s talk at the British Library last month, only one warranted the garish accompanying graphic to help describe his peculiar artistic condition. In A Revolution in Sound: Russian Avant-Garde Music of the 1910s and 1920s, Frolova-Walker described the work of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin and played a section from his Prometheus Opus 60 (written in 1910). It began, as we heard, with a very mysterious chord; one that Scriabin could have no doubt described in some of the vivid colours featured on the keyboard above. Having a form of synaesthesia, what Scriabin wrote in sound, he saw in colour. It was this that drove him to try and create what would have been one of the most adventurous multimedia experiences ever performed…
Scriabin had previously premiered the use of a “tastiera per luce” – a kind of light keyboard or “colour organ” where coloured lightbulbs glowed in accordance to particular musical notes. As per the multicoloured keyboard above, for Scriabin C major was red, D yellow and so on. (More on the emotional impact of particular musical keys and colour theory here).
While Frolova-Walker somewhat disappointingly described the light keyboard as “looking a bit pathetic” (the image surely doesn’t quite do it justice) Scriabin’s artistic intentions as a pioneer of light music were actually far grander than simply illuminating bulbs alongside a musical performance.
Until his death in 1915, Scriabin was working on an all-ecompassing performance piece entitled Mysterium. It was an enormously ambitious spectacle that he hoped would take the form of a week-long performance in the Himalayas involving sound, light and scent in a pioneering multiuser, multimedia performance.
This seven-day-long megawork would be performed at the foothills of the Himalayas in India, after which the world would dissolve in bliss. Bells suspended from clouds would summon spectators. Sunrises would be preludes and sunsets codas. Flames would erupt in shafts of light and sheets of fire. Perfumes appropriate to the music would change and pervade the air. At the time of his death, Scriabin left 72 orchestral-size pages of sketches for a preliminary work, Prefatory Action, intended to “prepare” the world for the apocalyptic ultimate masterpiece…– from the Scriabin Society’s website
The Russian composer, Alexander Nemtin, assembled those jottings and co-created the Prefatory Action – its three movements have since been performed under conductors Cyril Kondrashin and Vladimir Ashkenazy, with Alexei Lubimov at the piano. While there has been a resurgence in Scriabin’s music as a whole since the 1990s (his work fell out of favour in the middle of the last century) there remains just this single version of what would have made up a small part of Mysterium (on Amazon here).
With a segment of his final project finally co-scored into something playable, perhaps the full spectacle of his ambitious performance piece might be realised in the multimedia twenty-first century?
2015 for a centenary in the Himalayas anyone?
More on the talks currently scheduled at the British Library here.