My goodness, life gets busy doesn’t it? Working, singing, dating… well, probably more of the first two and less of the last but they’ve all kept me occupied recently. At the end of January I started a new job in a field completely unrelated to anything I have ever done in the past (geology, of all things! Insert rock music jokes here) so that’s claiming a fair amount of my mental energy lately. Last weekend I was out of town for a rehearsal weekend to do some intensive work with Brisbane Chamber Choir on repertoire for the current season, and the first performances are now less than a week out. And I’ve also been busy booking a month-long European trip in July this year, so nutting out all the details of that has left less time for extras like blogging and listening to new music.
A couple of weeks ago you’ll recall that I issued myself a challenge – in addition to going on five real-life dates in five weeks, I’m also attempting to go on five “blind dates” with composers to see if I click with anyone new. Reading more of Christopher Lawrence’s book Swooning is also making me aware of just how many composers there are out there whose names I am familiar with but whose music I’m not. Names that I have often heard on the radio or read in books and that I can link to places and times, and in many instances I even know who their contemporaries were. However, if pressed I couldn’t identify or name a single one of their works. So I decided these would become my primary criteria for a “blind” date:
1) not knowing anything about them beyond very sketchy biographical details, and
2) not being able to hum, recognise or instantly name any of their music.
So I have embarked on the journey, selecting a handful of composers and trawling the interwebs for recordings of their work, actively listening (as opposed to having it on in the background) to however many pieces it takes to find something that resonates with me. For some composers that might happen instantly, and others might take a little while, but I’m assuming for the moment that I can find something to like of even the most obscure and “out there” composers. [Note: If you want to put that to the test and recommend someone extreme, go ahead – I’m up for a challenge!]
So without further ado, allow me to introduce you to the guy behind door number one.
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When I was a kid, my parents had a poster on the back of our kitchen door that was a sort of timeline of notable Western classical composers. Every composer was represented by their own coloured line (different colours for different nationalities) and their life span was mapped out in comparison to each other so you could see who was alive when. In the bottom left corner was a panel of photos or portraits of selected composers, maybe twenty-five or so. Many were looking straight ahead, but for the few that weren’t, my brother and I used to make up silly explanations for what they were thinking, or where their gaze was directed. The one that sticks in my mind the most is Alexander Scriabin, who had a moustache more suited to a cartoon character than a real person, and who had a distinctive starry-eyed, wondrous, gazing-off-into-the-distance kind of expression. But what was most amusing was that, in our kitchen, he was looking longingly at the tins of cat food lined up along the top of the pantry. So in our house he became “Scriabin, the composer who liked cat food”. Yes, really. Until very recently, whenever I heard his name THIS is what came to mind.
Poor Alexander. What a reputation to have. Pretty sure this is a major disservice to a man who pushed some serious boundaries with his music during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century. So I’ve set out to correct this perception, and see what he was really like. (Note: I can fairly confidently say, however, that I would never go on a real-life date with someone if the only thing I knew about them was that they liked cat food. Just saying.)
Well Scriabin was quite the character, as it turns out. Born into an aristocratic family in Moscow in 1871, he grew up surrounded by pianos and pianists and became pretty fascinated with the instrument from an early age – apparently somewhat precocious, he would often demand that his aunt play for him, and when he was a bit older started building his own pianos. So, you know… probably not the most sociable of kids. There was an unsuccessful attempt to conduct an orchestra comprised of local children, and he would put on little performances of his own short plays and operas with puppets, presumably to whomever he could get to watch them. I can’t help imagining a cross between Ralph Wiggum from The Simpsons, and Schroeder from the Peanuts cartoons. With a moustache.
He became a remarkable pianist and studied at the Moscow Conservatory, but as he got older he delved into all kinds of weird and wonderful philosophies – he was into mysticism and theosophy but also exceptionally narcissistic, attaching a great deal of significance to his birth date (Christmas Day in the Russian Orthodox calendar, but 6 January in the Gregorian). So he effectively believed himself to be a bit of a cult figure, also having been influenced by Nietzsche’s ideas about the coming of a superhuman. And he had periods of alcoholism, which fuelled his belief in his own omnipotence. So, deluded and mentally ill seems to be the consensus nowadays. Scriabin also claimed to be synaesthetic, experiencing music as colours, but a fair amount of research into synaesthesia over the last century would suggest he probably wasn’t, and that it was more likely psychological in his case, rather than neurological. The fact that his personal colour wheel aligned neatly with the circle of fifths is probably a little too convenient, shall we say.
His music started out being heavily influenced by the great Romantic composers and pianists like Chopin and Liszt, but he increasingly played with unusual tonality and chromaticism and developed a sound world that was distinctly his own. He was innovative and highly controversial, well-liked by some and wildly unpopular with others, but most certainly famous within his lifetime. Most of his music was written for the piano, but he produced some orchestral work too, primarily a piano concerto and several symphonies. One of these symphonies, or symphonic poems as they’re commonly referred to, is the Poem of Ecstasy. Scriabin called it his “Orgiastic Poem”; Christopher Lawrence says it’s the only orchestral work he knows of about multiple orgasms, complete with phallic trumpet. (And if that doesn’t make you go and have a listen, then what will?!)
If you think Scriabin’s life was unusual, by the way, then consider how it ended: at the age of 43, a large pimple underneath his moustache became infected and he died of blood poisoning. Given that, at the time of his death, he was in the process of writing a large scale work to be performed in the foothills of the Himalayas with lots of bells and whistles like scent and light and dancing, and which was somehow supposed to bring about the end of the world, I think he would have been rather disappointed to pass away so unglamorously.
Anyway, I had a meander through quite a few of his works on YouTube, in search of a piece that would help me connect with this mad genius. I’ll be honest, it took me a little while. It’s not all pour-yourself-a-glass-of-red-and-lie-back-on-the-couch-while-the-music-washes-over-you kind of experience. It’s not unpleasant either, but some of it does feel like a completely different musical language to what I’m used to (although I do think my tastes are continually broadening). Which is fine, that was the whole point of this exercise, right?
I started my exploration fairly randomly, just typing his name into YouTube and clicking on the first few things that came up. I think I’ve figured out that his later work (basically anything from 1900 onwards) is going to require some dedication on my part to really appreciate it. Like the Poeme Satanique, or the aptly-named Ironies in C Major (because it isn’t – until the very last chord). But when I listened to pieces which date back to his teenage years and early twenties, I found some of it was really quite accessible. There are a series of 12 Etudes (studies) from 1894 that are very beautiful – I liked No. 11. But I was really hoping that somewhere there would be a piece that from the very first bar would have me saying “Yes! This is what I’ve been looking for!” And there was.
When the piano starts so poignantly just as the clarinet takes over the theme (about 1:37), it’s like tiny raindrops just starting to make ripples on the surface of a still lake. I love the intimacy of the orchestra as it repeats what it had to say at the very beginning, but lets the piano join the conversation over the top. I love the images that accompany this track as well – very other worldly. It fits somehow. This is the second of the three movements and the other two are wonderful as well, but the opening of this movement might be one of my new favourite passages of music. Totally entrancing.
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Second date potential: 3/5
Well, what girl can resist a Russian megalomaniac who thinks he’s God, writes some powerfully erotic music, and sees C major in vibrant crimson? I would love to say 4 based on the beauty of the piano concerto, but alas Scriabin didn’t stay 24 forever. I will definitely come back to his work at some point, and I’m glad I took the time to learn something about him, but I’m not sure if there’s a long-term future here. At least I don’t still think he likes cat food.