Irvine, California (Spring 2016)
Since the brilliant creation of humanity on this planet, the mysteries of our universe have declared themselves instrumental to the question of who and what we are as life forms on this planet. Without thought the more we live. The more we begin to understand how we stylize and express our lives, including our simple mundane actions, to the reflections of those found in nature. We find through time that nature, the transpiring of action and change, is the song to our one only equipment: our bodies.
It has been a subject of ancient dispute whether or not the stars influence the workings of our passions, virtues, and propensities. Humankind, being the ambassador of this great world, found various ways to commission this curiosity. This virtue served as the palate for the intellectual and creative composer Alexander Scriabin.
Scriabin, born in Russia in 1872, was a gifted pianist whom at a young age was drawn to philosophical and spiritual avenues. Early on he was considered a “mystic”— a man with the desire to find harmonic correspondence with the ethereal worlds. In the years that led up to the social, cultural, and political explosion that was the Russian Revolution of 1917, the brilliance of Scriabin pushed the rich Russian musical tradition forward. Held by the pillars of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, he began his exploration in his ambitious first symphony by writing every single note based on the sensation of color, light and ‘time’ that was found in the blood and bones of our common human anatomy. He believed in the completion of Mystic Conquest of the 20th century the human enzyme; that the body itself was a complete harmonic system that responded to specific tones and specific colors in a very organized and intelligent way.
Along with many of the scientist, biologist and thinkers of his time, he found that the human body was the perfect instrument of natural creation and that it could respond instantly, like the antennae, to all types of frequencies and motions found in the incubation of ‘space-time.’ It was said that at the age of 15 on the subway in Moscow, young Scriabin approached Russian philosopher, August Ludwig von Schlozer, and they immediately began to share ideas about music and the human body and how certain tones, even the ones of the subway, vibrated parts of his bones and felt to stabilize an area in his brain, a primitive area he recalls, that made him feel “higher.” Here, perhaps is where Scriabin began to explore and express the complexity of his psyche1. Because what followed was the collection of solo piano works that was to represent the fluidity of what he interprets as the primitive combinations of mankind’s bodily awareness.
Now right upon the horizon of the 20th century, several alliances were formed to stimulate the world with these striking ideas. There were handful composers of the late 19th and 20th century awakened by the thought of their craft being instrumental to cosmic understanding as if they themselves were the force behind the answers. Keep in mind, on the other side of Europe, Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, T.S. Eliot were all beginning a literary journey that exposed the same faucets of this same concept. Furthermore, these inclinations were alive in the music of earlier and contemporary creators like Oliver Messiaen, Brahms, and Beethoven. The eve of this world had many inventions occupying the same space. It was at this time that Max Plank cultivated quantum mechanics, Albert Einstein and his theory of relativity in 1905, along with the invention of the modern car, the airplane, and various other inventions.
Yet there was also another world where Wagner began to open up his mythos-psycho dramas, Stravinsky and his persona of primitivism through the Rite of Spring in 1913 along with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and their eruption of metaphysical psychology about the psyche and the collective consciousness. The world of our dreams felt anew. Both of these disciplines coexisted and withheld the same revolution as the other.
Scriabin held the ardent curiosity for revolution. One work that stands out is his unfinished symphonic suite known as the “Prefactory Act.” He imagined this work to be performed at the dawning of civilizations’ close or the movement into human freedom, as in the one that Greeks experienced, as in the way back to the natural world where the human body was free to explore at its own means.
Around 1909, while residing in Brussels, Scriabin began writing his fifth symphonic work, Prometheus. Prometheus: The Poem of Fire is one of his greatest symphonic works which made use of the “Color Organ” invented by Preston Millar and a matrix sonority of A D# G C# F# & B; giving life to what we know as the Mystic Conquest of the 20th century “mystic chord.”2 Scriabin had a vision to extract light from the performance of Prometheus, so that the sensory experience will be heightened. The first attempt to put the vision into action was in Carnegie Hall, New York, on the 20th of March 1915, only a month before the composer’s death, when the Russian Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Modest Altschuler. In the Musical Courier Clarence Lucas wrote:
“During the same time, Scriabin became very close friends with many poets, painters, and philosophers such as Wassily Kandinsky, who aided Scriabin in his theories on music and color. Kandinsky and Scriabin had much in common. Kandinsky developed an intricate theory of geometric figures and their relationships to human understanding of the body and the impressions it made on certain organs (for example, descending series of circles, triangles, and squares); he used their veiled imagery as symbols of archetypes (the circle is the most peaceful shape that represents the human soul et.). Strikingly, from the start, Kandinsky had given music supremacy over painting.
In 1911, Kadinsky wrote: “After music, painting may well be the second of the arts unthinkable without construction…thus painting will attain the higher levels of pure art upon which music has already stood for several centuries.”3
By the end of the 19th century, Scriabin began outlining his theories on how the body clings to the tendency to need to release its energy through waveforms. He found the most important ‘knots’ of energy were trapped in a neurological stem found in the spinal chord and once released, or set free through waves, the energy could migrate to more vitalizing parts of the body such as the brain and the heart. Based on this claim Scriabin states, “supernatural sounds could transfigure this existing world into a higher world above our material senses4…you see the mystery is a memory. The body holds every memory and corner of time in each of us; each participant has the ability to remember what he has experienced from the moment of his creation. It exists in each of us— it is only necessary to call up the experience, and the memory… to relive the primal integration … to relive the whole history of the race.”5
He writes, “I thought a long time about how to achieve fluidity and creativeness in the very structure of the temple…. and suddenly it came to me….all forms of color that the mind can experience can express the true mood of music and words.”6
Scriabin confessed he felt at first without the slightest doubt that his work actually existed somehow outside of himself, apart from himself, entirely independently, and (embodied) in an image inexpressible by words. He also expressed that it was as if he did not compose it, but so to speak only removed from it a veil, making it visible for people, translating it from a latent to a manifest state. Consequently, Scriabin’s entire problem consisted in not distorting, not obscuring the image he had perceived.
His pronouncements grew orotund. Scriabin took up thoughts on how focusing on the harmonic flow of the ones blood stream, one could achieve a full bodily revolution, as in the one the earth undergoes daily. And perhaps Scriabin was onto something genius and perhaps without him constantly questioning his own existence, our world would be lost of the avenue of how color and harmonic relationships affect the human body and its perception to the outside world. Thus, I find that by looking through a kaleidoscope of the world’s creators we see how fearless one can truly be.
These types of thoughts and writings help our world of artists move forward on a lively, mobile and clever journey of bodily knowledge and expression. To truly understand the music and the meanings behind certain creations, I believe we must investigate our first and only home: our bodies. With this, I believe we have captured an introductory glimpse into one of the many incarnations of Alexander Scriabin. Because of Scriabin’s courage, we can begin to imagine the vibratory possibilities from the shutting of a door to the tremor of our greatest and most precious thoughts — and a new mystery can finally unfold.
- Kenneth Peacock, “Instruments to Perform Color Music: Two Centuries of Technological Experimentation,” Leonardo, Journal of the International Society for the Arts, Sciences, and Technology, vol. 21/ no. 4.
- Peter Deane Roberts, Modernism in Russian Piano Music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 1: 2.
- Willem W. Austin, Music in the 20th Century (New York: Norton, 1966), 72.
- Boris de Schloezer, Scriabin: artist and mystic (Berkley: University of California Press, 1987), 69. 5 Ellon Carpenter, quoted in Faubion Bowers (1973), The New Scriabin, p.171. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 6 Vladimir Orlov, “Scriabin and Metaphysics of death in Russian culture of the Silver Age”, Znaki vremeni (Bryansk, 2004): 6.
- Ellon Carpenter, quoted in Faubion Bowers (1973), The New Scriabin, p.171. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 6 Vladimir Orlov, “Scriabin and Metaphysics of death in Russian culture of the Silver Age”, Znaki vremeni (Bryansk, 2004): 6.
- Vladimir Orlov, “Scriabin and Metaphysics of death in Russian culture of the Silver Age”, Znaki vremeni (Bryansk, 2004): 6.
JULIA PRICE is currently in the closing of her education as an MFA and Ph.D candidate at the University of California Irvine studying flute, electronics and composition in the newly formed ICIT department. Alongside composing and performing, she has a passion for writing and journalism in areas of biology, music and the broader sciences. Her musical influences are from the classical and jazz and world traditions. But while in the closing months of her education, she hopes to pursue a life music and writing in a city like Chicago or New York with the inspiration to contribute to the movement and wealth artistic expression happening in the current times.