The Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York is hosting a show titled ‘Spectral Scriabin’. Alexander Scriabin was a composer from Russia, part of the so-called Russian Symbolist movement. Georgian pianist Eteri Andjaparidze and American lighting designer Jennifer Tipton are creating a music-theater work in which the music of Scriabin merges with an intricate display of color and light. The World’s Alex Gallafent reports. (Photo: Chris Lee) Download MP3
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LISA MULLINS: I’m Lisa Mullins and this is The World. This evening and again tomorrow at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York, there’s going to be a show entitled “Spectral Scriabin.” Alexander Scriabin was a composer and part of the so-called Russian Symbolist movement. And sound was merely one component of his music. That’s reflected in “Spectral Scriabin,” which is part concert, part light show. The World’s Alex Gallafent reports.
ALEX GALLAFENT: This is a piece for orchestra called “Prometheus: the Poem of Fire.” It was written by Alexander Scriabin in 1910. It includes a part for piano, but also for another keyboard, one that produces no sound at all. Instead Scriabin required that the silent keys project different colors onto a screen during the performance. Scriabin was born in Moscow, in 1872, to an aristocratic family. His great love growing up was the music of Chopin. But he quickly went his own way. One of Scriabin’s big thoughts is that music does have color. In fact, he may have had a rare condition that meant he really did see colors associated with specific notes. The pianist Eteri Andjaparidze has spent years performing solo piano works by Scriabin. But those works don’t call for color keyboards or anything like that.
ETERI ANDJAPARIDZE: Scriabin’s music is so colorful and meaningful in itself that it doesn’t really need additional components to be brought in. And being a soloist pianist I have always lived in that world of Scriabin that was in his imagination, full of light, but not in realization of those piano pieces.
GALLAFENT: But in the New York performances, the light in the theater actually changes as the music goes along. There are warm discs of blue and red, broad brushstrokes of violet.
EDITH FINTON RIEBER: Scriabin was first introduced to me in 1956 when we visited Moscow for the first time, my husband and I, and we were only there for a month. This was the first time foreigners were allowed in.
GALLAFENT: At that time, Edith Finton Rieber was in her mid 20s. Two years later, she returned to the Soviet capital to study piano. Rieber fell in love with the music of Scriabin. Now she calls that time her years of discovery.
RIEBER: And discovery it was, because Scriabin had synaesthesia and that’s the overlapping of the senses. So that every one of his keys had an equivalent color, and so, I’m at the piano. So that’s C is red, C sharp is violet, D is yellow, D sharp glint of steel…
GALLAFENT: That’s glint of steel.
RIEBER: F is deep red, F sharp is pearly blue, G is orange, G sharp is violet, A is green, A sharp is again a silver color, B is pearly blue and then back to C which is red.
GALLAFENT: Edith Finton Rieber is now in her late 70s and she’s president of the Scriabin Society of America. 20 years ago, she put on a music and light show, choreographed according to Scriabin’s precise instructions.
RIEBER: So that each sound had a different kind of color and effect relating exactly to Scriabin’s desires for, gold on D, and it was a marvelous thing.
GALLAFENT: But that’s not how Scriabin will be performed in New York this week. For Spectral Scriabin, Eteri Andjaparidze has joined forces with the American lighting designer Jennifer Tipton. Tipton explored Scriabin’s color structure for a while, but disregarded it in the end.
JENNIFER TIPTON: It’s interesting, I worked with that quite a bit but there are places where it just doesn’t work at all. For instance there were pieces where he, the key was in C major, I think, which was red for him, and the red just did not work for the piece at all.
GALLAFENT: So Tipton and Andjaparidze have taken a more instinctual approach, matching color to music as they go along, and shaping a visual experience across an hour-long show.
TIPTON: I can’t think of a single disagreement that we’ve had.
ANDJAPARIDZE: No, none.
TIPTON: So we hear it the same way.
ANDJAPARIDZE: We see what we hear and we hear what we see, like mad hatters.
GALLAFENT: No one knows for sure whether Scriabin was mad or whether in fact he really did hear colors. But Jennifer Tipton hopes someone who really does have synaesthesia comes to the show.
TIPTON: Because if it’s true that you see a color for each note, then for the harmonies and as you put the notes together, it must be something extraordinary. So I ache to speak to someone about what it feels, looks like.
GALLAFENT: Scriabin left some more clues as to what it all felt like for him. Again, pianist Eteri Andjaparidze.
ANDJAPARIDZE: For the 4th sonata which we will be concluding our performance he wrote a poem:
MALE SPEAKER: In a light mist, transparent vapour
Lost afar and yet distinct
A star gleams softly
GALLAFENT: You can see the same kind of thing in the directions he gave to musicians on his musical scores.
ANDJAPARIDZE: That’s why his markings were like “sun after rainy day” or “velvet-like” or “luminous” or “caressing,” or you name it.
MALE SPEAKER: Sharp desire, voluptuous and crazed yet sweet
Endlessly with no other goal than longing
I would desire.
But no! I vault in joyous leap
Freely I take wing
Mad dance, godlike play!
GALLAFENT: One academic described Scriabin’s poetry as “linguistically over-charged.” But with Scriabin you’ve got to go whole hog. Music, color, poetry, whatever he cooks up. The last fragments of music Alexander Scriabin ever wrote were for a piece called Mysterium. It was to be performed at the foothills of the Himalayas, after which, as the Scriabin Society puts it, “the world would dissolve in bliss. Sunrises would be preludes and sunsets codas.”
ANDJAPARIDZE: He was free. He was a free spirit and he used to say that he lives in and for the future. So that gives us a lot of grounds to improvise. We don’t know, he may not have liked what we did, but we don’t care, because we are free.
MALE SPEAKER: Toward thee, created freely for me
To serve the end
My flight of liberation!
GALLAFENT: For The World, I’m Alex Gallafent in New York.
MALE SPEAKER: I swallow thee
Sea of light
I engulf Thee!
MULLINS: You can watch on online documentary about Alexander Scriabin. Find it at TheWorld.org. That’s our program today. From the Nan and Bill Harris Studios at WGBH, I’m Lisa Mullins. Thanks for being with us.
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