songofcopper: (Purrodigy)
Last evening I was reading a fascinating article about the ANS - an unusual synthesiser developed in Russia in the 1930s. It was designed in 1938 by a certain Evgeny Murzin and was named after the composer and occultist Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin. The unusual thing with the ANS is that it is not operated in the conventional way of synthesisers - or of musical instruments in general - i.e., you do not instruct its pitch and tone by pressing or touching it. To quote the article linked above,

‘Instead you etch images onto glass sheets covered in black putty and feed them into a machine that shines light through the etchings, triggering a wide range of tones. Etchings made low on the sheets make low tones. High etchings make high tones. The sound is generated in real-time and the tempo depends on how fast you insert the sheets.’

This is not so much playing your instrument as… sending it a postcard. The music it makes is, in effect, a sort of mechanised synaesthesia. (Or a session with a mechanised alienist, translating your dreams and drawings into diagnoses.)

Or perhaps it’s something like a cross between a vinyl record and a CD. The topography of the surface of the inserted medium shapes the pitch, but it is read not by tactile means (a stylus) but by light.

Incidentally, there are some who consider Scriabin himself actually to have been a synaesthete, whilst others disagree. Myself, I don’t think that matters: artists will become elective synaesthetes, whether or not they are neurological ones. Words, music, images, performances, these are intended to stimulate cross-sensory responses. In that way, the audience partakes of a synaesthetic event too.

Speaking of synaesthetic events, Mr Scriabin had some bold ideas about the effect upon matter and consciousness of sound in conjunction with light. Inspired in part by Theosophical notions, he envisaged that the correct combination of these energies could free consciousness from the prison of matter. (My personal sense is that matter is no prison: rather, it is the window or lens via which one’s consciousness may be focused in order to experience awareness as an operant existent in the Great Device of the Universe… but that, to put it mildly, is a topic for another day.) This does seem to be a greatly alluring idea: people have been experimenting with versions of it for… well, perhaps forever is the word I want. Think of a cathedral, pierced with shafts of coloured light - aethereal blades cleaving through a haze of incense, to be joined in this act of severance by knifing shards of choral music. Thus is the soul invited to divorce the body - to disrobe, to go naked to its source. Further back: think of a cave, smeared with paintings that appear animated by pulsing rhythm and flickering torchlight, commanded to live by a chanting shaman. Thus is the spirit invited to leave its human host, and visit the realm of other forms, or formlessness.

Further forward: think of the Pink Floyd under swirling projections at UFO. Think of the IPCRESS File. Think of an all-conquering band at a stadium with a light show. Think of seizure-inducing kids’ animations.

All these scenarios look to split the atom of the self - for good or ill.

A friend on Facebook directed me to this video, which records the preparation of a performance of Scriabin’s ‘Prometheus: Poem of Fire’, along with the performance itself.

This piece - involving not only music but coloured light - had to wait until 2010 to be realised as written. Despite the dedication of all involved, there is something just a little disappointingly earnest and everyday about this endeavour. It becomes a jolly project, with all thought of magick purpose (however unworkable and futile) swept neatly aside with prim giggles. The lights themselves are clean and safe-looking. A true ‘Poem of Fire’ perhaps wants actual flames - let’s face it, nothing is going to be devastated or transmuted by an array of LEDs. The music itself feels a bit like a film soundtrack (yet another instance of collaboration between sound and light). Thinking of the earnest good sense that has gone into bringing ‘Prometheus’ to the stage only makes me wish they had managed to incorporate a little Mischief into the proceedings. I cannot imagine that Scriabin will have liked the thing to be quite this hygienic and sober. Apparently, he had plans for another such piece - ‘Mysterium’ - to be staged on a grand scale in the Himalayas. The idea was that it would bring about the very Apocalypse. I cannot imagine (again!) that Mr S. can have conceived of such an ostentatious working without serious quantities of humour. The simple fact is, no philosophy, no spirituality, no cosmology, makes any sense at all without humour. Success in any of these (related) areas (and perhaps we may as well include large-scale musical composition) is guaranteed to be elusive if pursued in an atmosphere of complete and utter seriousness.


Another friend started me on another, somewhat-relevant train of thought by discussing the propensity for psychological states to affect physical ones. This meandered towards an idea that it would be fun to have physical states affect musical forces (e.g. your blood pressure hooked up to guitar effects). Immediately my mind was full of hilarious possibilities.

I remarked as follows: “Surely some composer somewhere is doing biofeedback-induced music... brainwave-induced music... ?? In a German university? (Or a basement in Prague?) And calling the piece ‘Diagnosis Music’!” I remain convinced that this is happening right now. My friend rather agreed, and supplied an example of this sort of technique - Aube’s ‘Cardiac Strain’, which is one of those sound-collage type things, using nothing but heartbeats.

My flippant response: “I wonder if it makes good exercise music?”

But also: “You could probably argue that most music models bodily/neurological processes - physical movements, ideas, decisions, emotions. A written score is something like a Jacquard program for the body, preserving/replicating movement - as in those automata that write, draw or play instruments…”

Here is the flipside to musical endeavours that seek to unmake the ordinary human state of being - the doom of quests to induce the Apocalypse via orchestral performance. Music is Divine gift, but it is mediated by earthly, muscular operations. Any attempt to record the part that is Divine inevitably encodes the fleshly contribution also. Musical experiences that do manage to be transcendent often seem to do so at that special moment where conscious effort, practised skill, human intent, dwindle in significance - awareness flees from them, they are now just automatic processes. Something else takes over, and this is not necessarily reliable or predictable. It just happens, that’s all.


Human will has scant reach, I feel. The last thing I want is Power - or at least, I’m tolerably certain that I don’t have any. Rather, I’m an instrument awaiting a Composer.

Date: Thursday, 25 February 2016 02:18 (UTC)From: [identity profile]
The blood pressure/guitar effects idea made me think immediately of Brian Eno.

Date: Friday, 26 February 2016 21:00 (UTC)From: [identity profile]
You're right, that is a bit Brianesque!


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