Apocalyptic ambitions: Alexander Scriabin and the Himalayas

Raga mythology overflows with supernatural tales – it is said that Malhar melodies can cause the rains to fall, and that past Hindustani heroes such as Tansen and Baiju Bawra (‘Crazy Bawra’) could use music to summon fire, enchant deer, and inspire the flowers to bloom.

Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915), though he lived and died 5,000km away in Moscow, felt similarly. The Russian composer believed that music was the strongest way to elevate the spiritual status of humanity, and perhaps even transform the very fabric of our reality. Like the classical masters of the Subcontinent, he combined extreme technical and conceptual dedication with a profoundly mystical outlook.

Scriabin’s music was highly controversial in his era, and largely ignored immediately after it. But today he occupies a revered status among Western classical listeners, who hail him for his innovative, chromatically charged piano works (e.g. the 24 Preludes for Solo Piano), as well as many novel approaches to orchestral writing.

His musical mysticism, which intensified greatly over the course of his short life, was influenced by ideas derived from chromesthesia – a form of synaesthesia where sounds become flashes and flickers of colour (although his own direct experiences of it are unclear). His spiritual approach was deeply, chaotically personal, mixing Nietzsche, Aristotle, and Russian symbolist poetry with dashes of the literary occult and various secondhand strains of ‘Eastern’ thought.

Never one to shy away from a grand creative theme, his described his very first piano sonata as “a cry against God, against fate”, and spent many years exploring the magical qualities of the ‘mystic chord’ – a curious note-stack full of clashing textures and fresh harmonic possibilities.

For years, Scriabin intended that the apotheosis of his vision was to come via the Mysterium – an astonishingly ambitious ceremonial concert combining music with poetry, sights, smells, and spiritual exhortation. He insisted that the event must last for a full week – and also that it would have be held in a specially constructed temple in the foothills of the Himalayas. In his eyes, the event would bring about the complete transformation of humanity, elevating us to become “nobler beings” and perhaps even causing the world itself to dissolve into divine bliss (‘…so then, young Alexander, what are your career ambitions?’).

Tragically (or perhaps not, depending on how much you want the world to be dissolved by piano chords), Scriabin died of sepsis in 1915, aged 43, long before his grand project could come anywhere close to being realised. He left behind ‘only’ 72 pages of a prelude to the Mysterium, as well as intriguing, half-sketched instructions for how to employ a ‘colour-organ’ to create multilayered light-shows to go with the tones of the massed orchestra.

In 2015, exactly a century after Scriabin’s untimely death, a group of musicians gathered to finally adapt his plans into a real-life Himalayan concert, held at the Thikse monastery in Kashmir. The spectacular event featured singers, various piano virtuosi, and the traditional rituals of the monastery’s monks, as well as an interactive light show based on Scriabin’s sprawling, sometimes-incomprehensible theories about music and colour (…devised by a team called the ‘Bureau of Extraordinary Affairs’).

The centerpiece was composer Alexander Nemtin’s Mysterium Suite, which expanded ideas from Scriabin’s prelude into a three-hour, three-part work with segments entitled ‘Universe’, ‘Mankind’, and ‘Transfiguration’.

While the attendance figure, naturally, was low, the event was – topologically speaking – the highest publicly attended classical piano concert in history. Pianist Coady Green, one of the performers, recounted his experience to the BBC: “Minutes after sunset on Summer Solstice, 21 June, we found ourselves bowing down to the imposing statue of Maitreya Buddha and slowly descending an outdoor staircase to a large, blue-lit courtyard, where monks had already taken positions, waiting silently as if in prayer. The setting was magnificent…surrounded by gargantuan, snow-topped mountains…”

“Light…radiated from a Mandala-shape design around the grand piano, which with much difficulty had been transported all the way from Delhi, over a thousand kilometers, and installed at the top of the monastery. The lighting shifted constantly, according to Scriabin’s own colour-tonal scheme, so every time we changed key, the lighting would move from blue through to red, orange, green. And as the monks performed the meditative, sacred, ritual Cham dance movements at various stages during the event, twelve original ‘scent compositions’, designed by renowned French perfumer Michel Roudnitska were pumped into the auditorium…picked up on the wind and carried throughout…”.

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