As part our ongoing series of articles, podcasts and videos celebrating sound in all its various forms, musician and writer Peter Kirn investigates the strange and wonderful history of Russian and Soviet visual music.
|WORDS: PETER KIRN |
Russia has put image to music in the form of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, in Wassily Kandinsky’s vibrant abstract paintings and numerous oversized dramatic spectacles. But lesser known are the country's experiments with electrified visual music, particularly those conducted in the Soviet period. These strange, ahead-of-their-time inventions are now being reborn with a new generation of artists.
vision into reality
In theatre, dance and music, Russian and Soviet-era artwork used every available technology to achieve a trans-disciplinary, immersive aesthetic experience. They continued to innovate with machine-driven optics and light when many other electronic music experiments were left literally in darkness. And if the composer Richard Wagner only theorised about Gesamtkunstwerk, it was the Russians who attempted to turn their fanciful visions into reality.
In this age of electrified machines, Russia's fascination with visual music can be traced to its spiritual forefather, the composer Alexander Scriabin. He found esoteric, spiritual meaning in the connection between colour and sound, with different musical notes producing synesthesia – the merging of one sense with another. To recreate the stimuli in his mind, he even added a line for colour organ ("clavier à lumières") to his mystical tone poem Prometheus: The Poem Of Fire from 1910. That creation splashed colour around the theatre in time with shifts in the music.
city as symphony
In early Russian visual music creations, you find a connection between music and painting. Futurist Vladimir Baranov-Rossiné's "Optophonic Piano” instrument created in 1907 employed hand-painted discs, spun in front of lights by a mechanical apparatus controlled from a keyboard.
Avant-garde composer Arseny Avraamov (1886–1944) was known for ideas like his raucous Symphony Of Factory Sirens. This work used an entire city as its instrument – employing factory sirens, automobile horns, the foghorns of the Soviet naval fleet alongside machine guns, cannons airplanes, a large band and choir performing the socialist anthem “Internationale”, among many other elements – all to create a massive-scale composition.
Avraamov also worked in visual music. Alongside Alexander Shorin, Evgeny Sholpo, and others, he developed a sonic technique that involved painting directly onto film, coinciding with the rise of optical soundtracks in the 1930s. Since that production method would render sound from light, the sonic patterns they produced anticipated synthesized sounds decades before the rise of the modern synthesizer.
Initially, these experiments were crude: hand-cut paper or detailed paintings of patterns producing simple tones and melodies one at a time. But – never ones to shy away from ambitious engineering – the Russian experimentalists developed entire machines around the photoelectronic concept. Sholpo's 1930s Variophone produced several tones at once, using hand-cut cardboard discs spun in sync with music, what he called “ornamental sound,” both visual image and sonic artefact. The device is credited with the first-ever artificial soundtrack for a now-lost 1930 film titled The Year 1905 In Bourgeois Satire then going on to be used in making soundtracks for Soviet animation, as well as collaboration with famed composer Georgy Rimsky‐Korsakov, before the Variophone itself was destroyed by a missile in the Nazi's siege of Leningrad.
KGB and Soviet space program
In fact, it's possible to imagine an alternative history of the synthesizer, one in which optical-electronic technology is employed in place of analogue (and later digital) circuitry. Drawn to the uniquely organic sounds that can be created, artists are reinterpreting this history, made accessible by the internet and by researchers like Andrey Smirnov, a specialist in the history of Russian visual and musical technologies. Derek Holzer and Mariska de Groot have each been inspired by the earlier inventions to work with the medium of opto-mechanical-electronic tone wheels. These spinning discs transform patterns of light and shadow into simultaneous sound.
Other works are just now coming to light. Some of these productions had military backing for research into the effects of audiovisual stimulation on different subjects. The KGB, Soviet air force and space program each supported the development of light instruments as technology that might eventually have intelligence or aerospace applications. Asking my Russian friends with some expertise in the area is itself a strange experience – they're initially surprised I don't know about the connection, then cagey about details, which were tightly classified in the age before Glastnost.
Light Instruments resurrected
Whatever the exact logic, the upshot was that aerospace engineers found themselves producing inventions that allowed the "performance" of abstract patterns of colour and light. Operating out of Kazan in the 1960s, the Prometheus group (another project named for Scriabin) made a series of these experiments including the Crystal, an octahedron-shaped Plexiglass object filled with 200 coloured lightbulbs and controlled by keyboard, that was completed in 1966. That device is now being recreated with the assistance of researchers, a new device fashioned from the rusted-out and damaged original, which had been left to rot for years before it was resurrected. Leading that effort is Dmitry Morozov, himself the son of an aerospace engineer. Morozov has taken the name of an aircraft (vtol) as his artist alias. The device was premiered during Polytech.Science.Art Week in December 2015 as a commission of the Moscow's Polytechnic Museum curated by media art historian Natalia Fuchs (I supplied the musical accompaniment), then shown again in Kazan, the city that first originated it. The goal of the Crystal project, project engineer Rustem Sayfullin told me through an interpreter, was to produce a kind of dance in light – a dance that could exist without being subject to the laws of gravity.
Lighting up soviet living rooms
These projects might seem like off-hours hobbies – and the engineers certainly had to frequently scrounge for parts, but the USSR bureaucrats evidently believed in their usefulness to the Soviet agenda. None other than legendary rocket engineer Sergey Korolev requested the "Indicator" to be produced by Bulat Galeev – a light and sound instrument designed for spacecraft. Instead of blaring klaxons and blinking buttons, the Indicator showed data as swirls of abstract colour – looking more like science fiction, or at least your screen saver, than what you'd expect from an average 1960s control panel. The design saw real-world tests, even if lighter, more compact conventional instrumentation won out in practice.
Following military experimentation, the light organs were popularised for the regular Russian citizen. An invention called "Disco" was mass produced, and brought sound-reactive coloured lighting effects to Soviet kitchens and living rooms. For those who couldn't afford to buy such things, DIY was an option. The Moscow Central Radio Club managed by the state even published electronics diagrams of inventions from the USSR as well as the West in pamphlets, and in the days before the internet, would respond to written inquiries from hobbyists electronics creators. This meant that psychedelic coloured lighting was a regular feature in music performances.
If you didn't encounter them there, you might even have some mandatory exposure to audiovisual installations in the relaxation rooms of factories, like the auto production facility at Kamaz. There, the USSR hoped, the abstract animations would sooth workers and boost productivity.
audiovisual stimulation lives on
Those ideas are distant now, but the legacy of the Soviet audiovisual project lives on, literally and figuratively. The computer has both made the general populous more accepting of abstract audiovisuals and hungrier for optical effects that differ from those we see on our screens daily. And who knows – audiovisual stimulation might just be the next trend. The KGB looked to research from the Academy of Sciences to learn how these AV projects might stimulate the brain and even help people living and working in multicultural, multilingual environments. Perhaps in our increasingly internationalised world, we may discover that research was ahead of its time.