Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Scriabin the mystic

Lately I've found myself immersed in the music of the Russian composer-pianist Alexander Scriabin lately. Born in 1871, Scriabin flourished at the cusp of tremendous musical and social changes before he died somewhat prematurely in 1915. His earliest compositions are very much in Chopin's shadow, including Chopin's favorite genres of the etude, prelude, nocturne, waltz and mazurka, and even a polonaise. But later he became interested in mysticism, specifically the Theosophical Society and the writings of Helena Blavatsky, and his music increasingly diverged from even the loose tonal standards of the late romantics. He continued writing preludes and etudes, but increasingly he called his short pieces poems or gave them unique and sensuous titles (e.g., Desire, Strangeness).

Faubion Bowers, his biographer, compares his mysticism with offhand remarks from the famous classical composers, but even more, his mysticism reminds me of Stockhausen. To be fair, Bowers wrote in the 1960s before Stockhausen's extra-planetary leanings became so pronounced. Nevertheless, Scriabin envisaged an orchestral work that included an airplane propeller in the percussion section, and Stockhausen composed a string quartet with helicopters. Scriabin's unfinished magnum opus Mysterium, based on Theosophical teachings, took a week to perform, incorporates incense into the stage settings, and ends with transfigured mankind immersed within the birth of a new God, creating a new race of spiritually advanced men. Stockhausen's magnum opus, the opera Licht, based on the Urantia Book's teachings, takes a week to perform, disperses fragrances into the audience, and is a summation of musical and religious thought, intended to "train a new kind of human being … who has never before existed on this planet."

This is not to say that Stockhausen is channeling Scriabin. The differences between the two composers are profound, and we should not be diverted by the connections between them, amusing as they may be. Scriabin's music inhabits the equal tempered musical world of western art music, dominated by the piano, perhaps the central instrument of this tradition. He ended up finding ways to stretch the vertical, late romantic tonal system into new shapes, harmonic chords that analysts still disagree as to their nature, or even their spelling. Stockhausen had the much finer gradations of the electronic studio at his disposal, so he went beyond harmony and sought the nature of music in time, looking at horizontal time scales that were inconceivable to Scriabin. And where Stockhausen sought to connect with the vibrations of the universe, Scriabin thought that he was the vibration of the universe, more of a megalomaniac than Stockhausen at his most extreme. Arguments in favor of understanding the composer's intent fall short when the intent is so clearly over the top, and as listeners, it is our responsibility to find for ourselves a spiritual message to sober and quiet the mind.

No comments: