Saturday 5 January 2013

Prometheus: Poem of Fire.

Brussels Palais des Beaux Arts to be engulfed in flames on January 25th?

Prometheus: Poem of Fire 
with the National Orchestra of Belgium, 
conducted by 
Stefan Blunier.

I’m already getting a bit hot under the collar, sweating away with four 400W. overhead projectors in my studio, trying to balance Alexander Scriabin’s flaming indications with my own ideas for kinetic painting to his Poem of Fire. By now the music is not only in my head - it’s in my whole being, day and night. I’m in a fever, swimming in colour and rhythm. 19 days to go until the concert!

Scriabin visualised his Prometheus: Poème du Feu, opus 60 (1910), as a spectacular synthesis of coloured light and music. 
In his score he wrote a part (Luce) for an organ (clavier à lumières) that would project coloured lights, in synch with the music. In practice this proved to be technically difficult and during his life-time the work was never performed with this primitive machine. Although it has since been performed many times, more or less according to his instructions, seldom have the coloured projections resulted in a Gesamtkunstwerk with added artistic value.

Scriabin’s tastiera per luce, designed by Alexander Mozer (above). 
My paints, brushes and glass plates - awaiting the artist’s touch (below).

Could Scriabin have imagined that one day (in 2013) an artist would have the ability to paint the colours of his music, live in concert, synchronous to his music? His written comments in the score seem to be crying out for a visual artist to give them form. He asks for visual effects like “sparkles, stars, ripples, red flames blazing up, cascades of fire, like fireworks, cataclysm, inferno, the whole world engulfed”. Hardly terms you would expect to give depth to his music, although to be fair, he also indicates “contemplative, with mystery, almost painfully voluptuous, imperious, with emotion and rapture, warlike, stormy, increasingly luminous and flamboyant, ecstatic”, etc. In any case, his equipment couldn’t produce these effects. Did Scriabin see himself as a lighting designer, or a director of the visual action? Would he have been willing for a musical visual artist to “interpret” his Luce score, just as a good pianist would interpret his music? In other words, not just accurately, but creatively, yet in harmony? We are venturing onto sacred ground here. He did proclaim “I am God”.

The first mysterious page with calm brass, then tympani and bass drum crescendo, to an expanding pool, with a hint of the Himalayas behind. You can’t see it, but the blue stretches right and left of the screen.

Instead of slavishly following multiple theories and directions about the Luce part, I decided to base my visuals primarily on what I can hear in the music. Scriabin’s music speaks so much more vividly than his words. With my study of his score, my musicality, my own synaesthesia and my ability to paint with sensitivity and strength, my continuous painting will hopefully become a powerfully emotional element in the performance, not just a documentation of Scriabin’s ideas.
This may be the first time that the work has been performed in this way, with kinetic visuals painted live onstage, on overhead projectors providing images that can be dimmed, mixed and multi-layered. Emboldened by the reactions to my visual interpretation of Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy (with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2010), I feel I’ve figured out ways to “transpose” his music expressively into my visual language. I suspect he would have welcomed my solutions and seen them as a creative extension of ideas that he didn’t have the opportunity or the artistic training to develop.

                        The final winged, giddy dance of the piano, pursued by a white-hot all-consuming flood.

My own synaesthetic responses prevent me from agreeing with some of the composer’s proposed music/colour correspondences, which were influenced by the theories, diagrams and mystic symbolism of his friends and acquaintances (e.g. we agree that F# is blue with a tinge of purple; but for me C major is definitely golden yellow, not red).  Listening to the sound of the music again and again paid off. It’s rather a surprise to discover that most of my visuals actually coincide neatly with his comments in the score in general.

Leaving all theory aside, this is an emotionally overwhelming piece. A work of theatrical proportions. Working for hour after hour on the choreography of my visuals, being transmorphed from matter into spirit several times and repeatedly reaching a climax, so to speak, is quite exhausting for any body. 

For their final chorus, the choir is bathed in this expanding, all-embracing white light.

After his Poem of Ecstasy, it’s clear that with Prometheus Scriabin was already moving towards his magnum opus Mysterium that would be staged in the Himalayas. The work was never completed. Scriabin was convinced that through the interaction of all the senses and especially the arts, mankind could achieve a higher state of supreme ecstasy - a mystical or super-human experience. Prometheus/Poem of Fire ends in white heat, fire having transformed matter into a spiritual state. It’s all over in about twenty-one minutes. A holistic, deeply moving experience that is difficult to define. Time-bound yet timeless. The images have disappeared forever, though possibly burned onto the retina. But Scriabin has left me with the perfect one-liner for my projected kinetic painting: “I am a moment illuminating eternity”.


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