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.
By 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.