The Audio Control of Laser Displays

Scriabin: Prometheus

One of the graduate seminars I attended at the University of Toronto was entitled “Scriabin, Busoni, and Reger—The End of an Era?” . My research project for this course was an analysis and report on Prometheus: the Poem of Fire (1909–10) by Alexander Scriabin (1872–1915), a remarkable turn–of–the–century Russian composer with strange, monumental, yet prophetic notions relating to the synthesis of the arts. (The first electronic music studio built in the Soviet Union is named for Scriabin and is associated with the Scriabin Museum, Moscow.) My study of the score of Prometheus, considered by his biographer Faubion Bowers (1917–1995) to be his fifth (and last) symphony, was concerned mostly with its musical elements, but I was naturally intrigued by its compelling theosophical cover design (by Jean Delville), the symbolism of its theosophical/philosophical extramusical program, and especially, the top line of the score, marked “Luce”—for a lighting instrument.

Scriabin wanted much, much more than just music and lighting for his final works (perhaps mercifully uncompleted), the Mysterium and its Preliminary Action: dance, mime, gestures, processions, fires, incense, perfumes, tastes, caresses, pain, tactile experiences, theatrical effects, etc. After seven days and nights of these activities (according to Scriabin), there would be a final “suffocation of ecstasy” among the faithful who had assembled in the Himalayan Mountains for the occasion—during which he expected a new, exalted race of men to be born, Scriabin himself leading them. Prometheus is a rather less cataclysmic affair, yet it may be identified as an early forerunner of current multimedia explorations in the arts.

While the piece exists in the standard orchestral repertoire, no truly satisfactory performances of the “Luce” part were possible until devices such as VIDEO/LASER III became available. In 1975 I suggested to James Dixon, conductor of The University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra, and James Avery, professor of piano, that we perform Prometheus according to the composer’s intentions. The noted Russian–born lexicographer, composer, and authority on Scriabin, Nicolas Slonimsky (1894–1995), has stated that, “Perhaps, the nearest approximation to Scriabin’s scheme was the performance of Promethée by the Iowa University Symph. Orch. On Sept. 24, 1975, under the direction of James Dixon, with a laser apparatus constructed by Lowell Cross.” [4] For this performance in Hancher Auditorium, we used a special electronic keyboard, played from the “Luce” part in the score, and programmed the laser system with Scriabin’s own orchestral sounds via a stereophonic microphone system. The keyboard performer operated the choppers in VIDEO/LASER III as well as the dimmers in supplementary lighting equipment, providing color changes in synchronization with the music, in accordance with Scriabin’s pitch–to–color associations (C = red, F–sharp = blue, etc.). In addition to deploying the symphony orchestra, the keyboard–controlled laser and lighting equipment, a huge projection screen, and all of Scriabin’s other musical requirements (piano, chorus, organ), we burned Russian incense (“Cathedral Blend No. 3,” provided by Faubion Bowers, 1917–1999, the Scriabin biographer). We also propagated a dry–ice cloud into the auditorium (infused with No. 4711 Eau de Cologne), onto which laser effects were projected toward the end of the 23–minute work. We played two performances to accommodate an attendance of over 4,200; the auditorium has a seating capacity of 2,500. Franklin Miller, a professor in the University’s made our production into a 16 mm color film, a professor in the University’s Cinema Department. It has been shown in the U.S. on CBS–TV, in Germany on WDR, and in the Netherlands, on NOS.