When Alexander Skryabin heard music, he didn’t just get a buzz from the sound of good vibrations. He saw colours. And not just any colours; musical notes had specific, predictable hues that meant he couldn’t help seeing what he heard. For the short-lived Russian composer, whose artistic peak was reached over a hundred years ago, this created two problems. The first one was social: how could he tell artistic friends about his unusual condition without sounding crazy? The second problem was artistic: what, if anything, should he do musically to express the counterpoint and correspondence between his hyper-connected senses?
There wasn’t much to be done about the social aspect of Skryabin’s sensory problem. Even though today’s scientists of perception would have believed him (the condition, synesthesia, has been recognized as a real thing), friends of his like Sergei Rachmaninoff did indeed think he was crazy and dismissed his multisensorial claims as nonsense.
But it turned out there was something Skryabin could do with the second, artistic part of the problem posed by his synesthesia. And doing something about this second problem provided him with a crazy, foundational artistic question and quest: how could he get music to take listeners outside the limits of the purely sonic?
His orchestral piece Prometheus (1910) included a part for modified keyboard that produced no sound and instead shone programmed beams of colours that corresponded to what Scryabin heard. And although the “counterpoint of light” keyboard is almost always ditched when it’s performed today, the piece has stood the test of time. But adding a bit of colour wasn’t enough; Skryabin’s friends thought he was a bit nuts even before he started talking about seeing what he heard, and he didn’t stop mixing senses after Prometheus. Multisensorial fantasies fuelled the vision for his planned masterwork Mysterium, which was to be staged at the base of the Himalayas (I swear I’m not making this up) and aimed to combine instrumental music, dance, vocals, smells, flavours and adaptive stone architecture that would be transformed throughout the 7-day marathon of a piece. (He also thought that Mysterium’s effect would be to “replace the human race with nobler beings”, but that’s a story for another review intro.)
If Skryabin had been able to jump a hundred years or so and find himself at the multimedia extravaganza Les Planètes event held last week at Montreal’s SAT (Société des Arts et Technologies) he probably would have had an Arts-gasm. There weren’t smells or dancers or mountains, but there was seeing-what-you-hear and thoughtful ambiance aplenty at the SAT. The main event, Québec composer Walter Boudreau’s Les Planètes piece for solo piano, featured contemporary music specialist Louise Bessette on a miked-up Yamaha piano, a three-person sound crew coordinating the connection between sound and light, and visual artist Yan Breuleux improvising a light show on a responsive display prepared beforehand. It was staged in the SAT’s top floor dome (the “Satosphere”) in near-total darkness with rows of giant air-mattresses providing the seating at an angle that made it easy to stare deep into the visual space that was presented with the piece.
I was disappointed by a few aspects of the show, but my disappointment is half-hearted since this was as much a visual as a musical experience and I’m probably the least visually sensitive person I’ve ever met. The program mentioned visual artist Bréleux’s ambition to “offer the audience an open artistic work that allows them to imagine their own narrative space.” But for much of the show, smoothly streaming rows of coloured cones and spheres provided what I felt was too much consistency for the journey through space. I found myself wishing I had more visual space with which to “imagine my own narrative space.”
Pianist Bessette is a tremendous champion of contemporary classical works and her performance of Les Planètes was wildly impressive. I was less impressed by her warmup pieces, where she played flat, elegant versions of the slow movement from Beethoven’s famous Moonlight Sonata and Debussy’s Clair de Lune. I can see the programmatic logic of beginning a tour through the galaxy with a gentle gaze at the moon, but these were tried and true hits featured on almost every “Great Classical Piano” album every produced.
Boudreau’s piece, composed partly with assistance from a Université de Montréal computer program, was very demanding, presenting a mostly atonal, kaleidoscopic variety of textures that were dazzling but didn’t provide much for the audience to latch onto during a first encounter. Which is why I think a less gentle warmup would have better primed us for what was about to take place. The 13 movements of Les Planètes are so complex that I would be bluffing if I passed any kind of serious artistic judgement on it, apart from stating the obvious in saying that it was an impressive. I thought I heard shades of Olivier Messiaen and Jacques Hêtu. I also heard what I thought was a wink at Liszt’s Piano Sonata in the piece’s final chords and I loved the effect. But fully appreciating this kind of cerebral repertoire involves repeated listening over weeks and months rather than a one night stand.
I asked the musician friend who was with me what she thought of it all. “On dirait qu’il manquait d’espace dans l’espace” (it was like there wasn’t enough space in space). But despite our overloaded brain circuits, both of us were mostly dazzled by the fantastic visuals. Still, when paired with the difficult, thrilling and hyper-varied musical language of Boudreau, it made for an overwhelming rather than a complementary artistic experiment. But then again, I suppose it would be strange for a musico-visual tour through the distant spaces of our galaxy to feel reassuring and familiar. The entire crew should be proud of their experiment, and I’ll be lining up if the SAT presents something similar down the road. One thing I know for a fact is that Scryabin would most definitely have envied us everything we saw and heard at a show that would have set his artistic imagination on fire.
Les Planètes took place on April 5th in the “Satosphere” at Société des Arts et Technologies, 1201 Boul. Saint-Laurent. For future events, check HERE.