‘La Croix Sonore’ Nicolai Obukhov. Russia – France, 1929-1934

Modern reconstruction of the Croix Sonore at the musée de L'Opéra, Paris.
Modern reconstruction of the Croix Sonore at the musée de L’Opéra, Paris.

Nicolai Obukhov was a Russian composer who, after studying  at the Moscow and St. Petersburg Conservatories with  Maximilian Steinberg and Nikolai Tcherepnin, left Russia on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution in 1918. Obukhov settled in Paris in 1919 where he studied orchestration with Maurice Ravel and Marcel Orban while supporting his new family by working as a bricklayer. 

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Marie-Antionette Aussenac-Broglie plays the Croix Sonore. Image; ‘Comoedia’ Paris 5th March 1934.

Obukhov, who signed his name “Nicolas l’illuminé” (Nicholas the visionary), was a deeply religious mystical Christian and profoundly influenced by the new theosophical cult of the Salon de la Rose + Croix which became popular with artists and musicians in the early 1920s. These beliefs were expressed in his compositions which, like his fellow countryman Alexander Scriabin, were intended as a means of attaining a transcendent state and a bridge to the world of the spirit – rather than just an aesthetic creation – Obukhov was driven by the idea that there was a higher reality to which art could reach. He attempted to achieve this spiritual goal through, for the time, unconventional means; a “total harmony” of 12 tone composition, unusual rhythm, experimental methods of notation, new invented instruments and expressive vocal directions –Obukhov was probably the first composer to   require a singer to make ‘non musical’ vocal sounds:

 ‘I forbid myself any repetition: my harmony is based on twelve notes of which none must be repeated. Repetition produces an impression of force without clarity; it disturbs the harmony, dirties it.’[1]

“…music enjoys decided advantages which endow it with possibilities of insinuation into the depths of the soul, and the mind, of emotions inaccessible to other arts. This faculty resides in the fact that music is hindered less than any other art in the realisation of its aims by material conditions.” [2]

In order to achieve this musical ‘insinuation’ Obukhov supplemented the traditional orchestra with new instruments of his own invention. These included the “Crystal” a piano type instruments where hammers hit a row of crystal spheres and the “Éther” an electronically powered instruments where a large rotating paddle wheel created various, apparently inaudible infra- and ultra-sonic humming sounds that ranged from approximately five octaves below to five octaves above human hearing. This sound was intended to have a mystical effect on the listener – though the effect was probably physiological, depending on the volume and frequency of the instruments sound. Low frequency infra-sound is known to have a physical effect on the human nervous system causing disorientation, anxiety, panic, bowel spasms, nausea, vomiting and eventually unconsciousness (supposedly 7-8 hz is the most effective being the same frequency as the average brain alpha wave). The effect is unintentionally generated by the extreme low frequencies in church pipe organ music, instilling religious feelings and causing sensations of “extreme sense sorrow, coldness, anxiety, and even shivers down the spine.” [3]

The film actor Georges Colin presents Obukhov's "Chants Des Spheres " with the chorus and the Croix Sonore. Photo; L'Ouest-Éclair March 6th 1936.
The film actor Georges Colin presents the “Le Chant Des Spheres” with the Croix Sonore. Photo; L’Ouest-Éclair_03_06_1936_02

Obukhov’s only purely electronic instrument was “La Croix Sonore” or “Sonorous Cross” which was essentially one of several Theremin type instruments developed in Europe after Leon Termens departure to the USA in 1927 (others included the “Elektronische Zaubergeige” and the “Elektronde“). The Croix Sonore was designed and built in Paris by Michel Billaudot and Pierre Duvalier to Obukhov’s instructions in 1929 and was the result of several years experimenting with beat frequency/heterodyning oscillators probably after witnessing Termen’s demonstration of the Theremin while on tour around Europe. As with theTheremin the Croix Sonore was based on body capacitance controlling heterodyning vacuum tube oscillators. To suit Obukhov’s mystical and theatrical style, the circuitry and oscillators were built into a 44 cm diameter brass orb and the antennae disguised by a large 175 cm high crucifix adorned with a central star.

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The Sonorous Cross was played in the same way as the Theremin – using the bodies capacitance to control the oscillators frequency, in this case moving the hands out from the central star on the crucifix altered the pitch and volume of the instrument. The ritualistic gestures made while playing this most unusual looking of instruments complemented the occult and mystical nature of Obukhov’s music and life.Obukhov continued to develop the instrument and produced an improved version, completed in 1934.

Nikolay Obukhov composed numerous pieces using his instrument as well as several using the Ondes-Martenot, culminating in his major work; “Le Livre De Vie” which exploited the glissando effects the Sonorous Cross could produce. The performances of these pieces were intended to be more like an occult church ceremony rather than an orchestral performance; Obukhov insisted that here were no spectators at his concerts – everyone would play their part in the mystical ritual which would take place in a circular ‘temple’:

“When the ‘Book of Life’ is performed, by which I mean when it is lived, the spectators, the participants will be arranged in spirals, in the interior of a circular and raised scene. The ‘terrestrial’ orchestra will be coiled up around the scene. A dome will contain the ‘celestial’ orchestra. Lighting changes will intervene in the ‘Sacred Action’, a synthesis of cult and orgy (the latter meant symbolically). Such is the ritual where science and religion are married.[4]

“…some like priests will take part directly in the action, the others witness it, participating mentally like the faithful in church.” [5]

These performances received mixed reviews from the puzzled critics:

A Paris concert audience was stirred. and while it squirmed and tittered. tonight when Nicholas Obouhoff’ presented parts of his “Book of Life” and hitherto unknown “Annunciation of the Last Judgement.” to the accompaniment of the new electric musical instrument, the croix sonore.

Henry Prunieres introduced the concert. warning the audience that it was going to hear chords played on the piano. notes sung by a human voice and sounds drawn from an instrument such as it had never heard before. Even this warning. however. did not prepare the listeners for the sudden “shriek” – there is no other word for it-of Suzanne Balguerie on the opening note of one of Obouhoff‘s liturgic poems. There was no warning, either. when the singer suddenly began to whistle instead of sing. Some members of the audience thought it was one of their number expostulating in the classic manner and began to cry, “Hush! hush!“

Prunieres had praised the courage of the singers, Mme. Balguerie and Louise Matha. in attempting music so new, and as they produced strange note after strange note many felt that this praise was well merited. if only because their mastery of their effects prevented the audience from tittering more loudly.

‘Titters Greet Music of Obouhoff in Paris: Singers’ Strange Performance Accompanied by Electrical Instrument, Causes Stir’, 1. New York Times, May 16, 1934, p. 23.

“In “Annunciation of the Last Judgement” the singers stood together, one gowned in white. the other in red. while Obouhoff and Arthur Scholossberg played two pianos. and Princess Marie Antoinette Aussenac de Broglie, apart and sacramentally gowned in black, blue and orange, drew from the croix sonore notes that throbbed like twenty violins or at times sang like a human voice. In all this, it was the instrument that had the most success. Obuhoff’, it is said, dreamed of it long before the invention of the radio made application of the principle possible. He wrote music for it, calling it “the etherphone.” Out of it, by moving the hand back and forth, the Princess de Broglie drew an amazing sweetness or the most dreadful note, like the knocking of fate, to give Obouhofifs strange religious music far more power than his two pianos or even the distortions of his singers’ voices could produce.”[6]

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Nicolas or Nicolai Obukhov ( also Obouchov, Obuchov, Obouhow, Obuchow), Born April 22, 1892 in Ol’shanka, Kursk, Moscow – died, June 13, 1954 in St. Cloud, France

Nikolay Obukhov studied counterpoint at the Moscow Conservatory from 1911 and later at the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1913 (with Kalafati, Maksimilian Steinberg and Nikolay Tcherepnin). His first published works date from this period, and were published as ‘Quatre mélodies’ by Rouart et Lerolle in Paris in 1921.

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In 1915 Obukhov developed his own idiosyncratic form of musical notation (similar to one invented in Russia by Golïshev during the same period) using a 12-tone chromatic language highly influenced by the mystical Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. The only performances of his music in Russia took place at this time. A report of the performance describes Obukhov as ‘a pale young man, with gazing eyes’ who ‘confused the audience’. Obukhov left Russia during the revolution with his wife and two children; they eventually settled near Paris a year later. In Paris he encountered financial hardship until helped by Maurice Ravel who found Obukhov a publisher allowing him to devote his time to his music.

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The 1920s saw a handful of performances, most notably that of the ‘Predisloviye knigi zhizni’ (‘Introduction to the Book of Life’) under Kussevitzsky. During this and the next decade he put into practice ideas for electronic instruments Obukhov had conceived as early as 1917: the ‘efir’ and ‘kristal’ (‘ether’ and ‘crystal’) he had described in Russia eventually gave rise to the croix sonore, and even though he built and wrote for the ether, it was with the croix sonore that he gained most attention. He found an exponent of the instrument in his pupil Marie-Antoinette Aussenac-Broglie who had also performed some of his piano music; she demonstrated the instrument around France and Belgium. Similar to both the theremin and the ondes martenot in that pitch production is reliant upon the distance of the performer’s arm from the instrument, the croix sonore was the subject of a film of 1934. During the mid-1940s his notation again provoked heated discussion, this time in Paris; a book containing works from the 18th to the 20th centuries in Obukhov’s notation was published by Durand. In 1947, his ‘Traité d’harmonie tonale, atonale et totale’ ‚ which had already interested Honegger ‚ was published, while a year later he lectured on this subject in the Russian Conservatory in Paris. Obukhov spent his last years incapacitated by a mugging in 1949 where the final version of  ‘the Book of Life’ was stolen; he composed only a few works after this incident.

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Obukhov’s output is dominated by vast works of which the most notorious ‚ notwithstanding the gargantuan ‘Troisième et dernier testament’ and ‘La toute puissance’ ‚ is the ‘Kniga zhizni’ (‘The Book of Life’) on which he worked from around the time he left Russia until at least the mid-1920s. Described by the composer as ‘l’action sacrée du pasteur tout-puissant regnant’ it was intended to be performed (or ‘accomplished’) uninterruptedly every year on the night of the first and on the day of the second resurrection of Christ. Obukhov did not consider himself the composer of this work; instead, he saw himself as the person permitted, by divine forces, to ‘show’ it. Parts of the score, one version of which is nearly 2000 pages in length, are marked in the composer’s blood. The music is preceded by a lengthy exposition in archaic Russian, while the work concludes with one section the score of which unfolds into the form of a cross and another, taking the shape of a circle, which is fixed onto a golden and silver box decorated with rubies and red silk. (Nicholas Slonimsky, in his memoir ‘Perfect Pitch’ relates that the composer’s wife, driven to despair by Obukhov’s obsessive behaviour regarding this piece, attempted to burn ‚ or ‘immolate’, in the composer’s terminology ‚ the manuscript but was interrupted in her crime.) Much of the instrumental writing is characterized by the alternation of chorale-like material (often ornamented by filigree arppegiation) with tolling patterns, building to textures of considerable rhythmic and contrapuntal complexity. The vocal parts ‚ as with his writing for the voice in most of his other works ‚ have huge tessituras and are bespattered with glissandi and instructions for screaming or whispering. The style which is consistently applied in this magnum opus is prevalent in all of his mature works and has its roots in the songs and piano miniatures written in Russia.

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Taking as a starting point the language employed by Skriabin in his mid- and late-period works, Obukhov evolved a harmonic technique based on the systematic configuration and manipulation of 12-note chords or harmonic areas. The sonorities resulting from this ‘total harmony’ are often broadly octatonic and frequently have a quasi-dominant character due to the prevalence of diminished fifths in the lower elements. Although longer structures appear to unfold in a schematized yet organic manner, the detail of musical procedure is curiously static. Obukhov saw his work as a musical articulation of his strongly-held religious beliefs and would sometimes sign his manuscripts ‘Nicolas l’illuminé’ or ‘Nicolas l’extasié’. Possibly inspired by Vladimir Solov´yov’s idea of ‘sobornost´’ (collective spiritual or artistic experience), Obukhov sought to abolish the traditional performer-audience polarity in favour of a merging of these previously mutually exclusive groups into one of participants. Obukhov mostly used his own texts which are frequently inspired by the Book of the Revelation or the Apocrypha. It is thus no coincidence that the only poets whose work appealed to him spiritually and compositionally were Solov´yov and Bal´mont, since it was the former’s orthodox mysticism that significantly informed the apocalyptic vision of the latter. In addition to these sources, mention should be made of Obukhov’s use of two verses by Musorgsky; it is between his work and that of Messiaen that Obukhov’s visionary language can be placed.

(details from: Commentary, Composers:4. Russian,Lithuanian and Jewish composers)
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List of works by Nicolai Obukhov:

1945 Adorons Christ, for piano (Fragment du troisième et dernier Testament) Keyboard
1942 Aimons-nous les uns les autres, for piano Keyboard
1915 Conversion, for piano Keyboard
1916 Création de l’Or, for piano Keyboard
1915 Icône, for piano Keyboard
1916 Invocation, for piano Keyboard
1948 La paix pour les réconciliés – vers la source avec le calice, for piano Keyboard
1952 Le Temple est mesuré, l’Esprit est incarné, for piano Keyboard
1915 Pieces (2), for piano Keyboard
Pieces (2), for piano Keyboard Piece
1915 Prières, for piano Keyboard
1915 Revelation, for piano Keyboard

Sources

[1] Quoted after Schloezer op. cit. p. 47.

[2]. manuscript MS 15226. music department at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France Paris.

[3] ‘Organ Music Instills Religious Feelings’ by Jonathan Amos, 9/8/2003

[4] ‘Music of the Repressed Russian Avant-Garde, 1900-1929 p. 107. By Larry Sitsky, .Greenwood Press, Westport Connecticut and London, 1994.

[5] ‘ Nicolas Obukhoff’, La Revue Musicale, 1, part 3, Nov. 1921, pp. 38-56, by Boris de Schloezer,

[6] Quoted from ‘ Visible Deeds of Music: Art and Music from Wagner to Cage’ Simon Shaw-Miller

Hugh Davies. “Croix sonore.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online

E.Ludwig: “La Croix Sonore” ReM, nos 158-9(935),96 ReM,nos 290-91 (1972-73)

Consciousness, Literature and the Arts. Archive. Volume 1 Number 3, December 2000 “Skriabin and Obukhov: Mysterium & La livre de vie The concept of artistic synthesis”. By Simon Shaw-Miller
Commentary, Composers: Russian,Lithuanian and Jewish composers
‘Nikolay Obukhov and the Croix Sonore’ Rahma Khazam. From: Leonardo Music Journal 
Volume 19, 2009 
pp. 11-12

 

‘Titters Greet Music of Obouhoff in Paris: Singers’ Strange Performance Accompanied by Electrical Instrument, Causes Stir’, 1. New York Times, May 16, 1934, p. 23.

The ‘ANS Synthesiser’ Yevgeny Murzin. Russia, 1958

The ANS Synthesiser
The ANS Synthesiser at the Glinka Museum Miscow.

The ANS Synthesiser takes it’s name and inspiration from the Russian composer Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (A.N.S.), whose mystical theories of a unified art of sound and light had a huge effect on avant-garde composers and theoreticians in Russia during the early Soviet period. Murzin’s objective was to build an instrument that combined graphics, light and music that gave the composer an unlimited palette of sound and freed them from the restrictions of instrumentation and musicians; a direct composition-to-music tool.

The ANS was a product of a culmination of several decades of exploration in sound and light by composers and artists such as Andrei Aramaazov, Boris Yankovsky, Evgeney Sholpo and others. To generate sound it uses the established photo-optic sound recording technique used in cinematography; this technique makes it possible to obtain a visible image of a sound wave, as well as to realise the opposite goal – synthesizing a sound from an artificially drawn sound wave.

One of the 44 photo-optical glass disks of the ANS
One of the photo-optical glass disks of the ANS

One of the main features of the ANS that Murzin designed is its photo-optic generator, consisting of rotating glass disks each containing 144 optic phonograms (tiny graphic representations of sound waves which, astonishingly, were hand drawn on each disk) of pure tones, or sound tracks. A bright light beam is projected through the spinning disks onto a photovoltaic resulting in a voltage tone equivalent to the frequency drawn on the disk; therefore the track nearest to the centre of the disc has the lowest frequency; the track nearest to the edge has the highest. Given a unit of five similar disks with different rotating speeds the ANS is able to produce 720 pure tones, covering the whole range of audible tones.

The ink covered coding field of the ANS
The programming field of the ANS

The composer selects the tones by using a coding field (the “score”) which is essentially a glass plate covered with an opaque, non-drying black mastic. The vertical axis of the coding field represents pitch and the horizontal, time in a way that is very similar to standard music notation. The score moves past a reading device which allows a narrow aperture of light to pass through the scraped off part of the plate onto a bank of twenty photocells that send a signal to twenty amplifiers and bandpass filters. The narrow aperture reads the length of the scraped-off part of the mastic during its run and transforms it into a sound duration. The minimum interval between each of the tones is 1/72 of an octave, or 1/6 of a semitone, which is only just perceptible to the ear. This allows for natural glissando effects and micro tonal and non-western scale compositions to be scored. The ANS is fully polyphonic and will generate all 720 pitches simultaneously if required – a vertical scratch would accomplish this, generating white noise.

Stanislav Kriechi at the ANS
Stanislav Kriechi explaining the coding field of the ANS

The non-drying mastic allows for immediate correction of the resulting sounds: portions of the plate that generate superfluous sounds can be smeared over, and missing sounds can be added. The speed of the score – the tempo of the piece – can also be smoothly regulated, all the way to a full stop via a handle at the front of the machine.

Murzin built only one version of the ANS, a working version currently resides at the Glinka State Central Museum of Musical Culture in Moscow. Martinov, Edison Denisov, Sofia Gubaidulina, Alfred Schnittke, Alexander Nemtin.

“I began experimenting with the ANS synthesizer when I joined Murzin’s laboratory in 1961. The most attractive method of composing for me was the freehand drawing of graphic structures on the score, including random and regulated elements, which are also transformed into sounds, noises and complex phonations. This offers new possibilities for composing, especially using variable tempo and volume. […]

An example of an ANS score, picturing graphic structures that were drawn freehand on the mastic-covered plate. In 1961 I composed the music for the film Into Space. Artist Andrew Sokolov’s cosmic paintings appeared as moving images in the film, smoothly changing into each other and dissolving into fragments by means of cinematic devices. The light and color of Sokolov’s cosmic landscapes generated complex phonations and sound transitions in All this makes it possible for the composer to work directly and materially with the production of sound.my mind. The movement of the cosmic objects on the screen initiated the rhythms of my music. I tried to express all this by tracing it on the ANS’s score, making corrections after listening to the resultant sounds in order to gradually obtain the suitable phonation. I finally felt that the sounds produced by the ANS synthesizer on the basis of my freehand graphic structures correlated perfectly with the pictures on the screen. From 1967 to 1968 I experimented with moving timbres on the ANS and studied different modes of animating electronic sounds. During this period, I composed the following pieces for performance on the ANS: “Echo of the Orient”, “Intermezzo”, “North Song” “Voices and Movement” and  “Scherzo”. All of these were composed traditionally for orchestra previous to my work with the ANS. When I coded these orchestra scores on the ANS, I wanted to solve the problem of animating electronic sounds, so that the phonation of the ANS could approach that of the orchestra. These pieces appeared on a recording entitled ANS, which was produced in 1970 by MELODIA record label.

Later I used the ANS to help me compose the music for a puppet show that incorporated the use of light called ‘Fire of Hope’, which was based on Pablo Picasso’s works. The play was performed in 1985 at a festival in Moscow and in 1987 at a festival in Kazan by the Moscow group Puppet Pantomime, under the artistic direction of Marta Tsifrinovich. My composition Variations, written for the ANS, was also performed during the 1987 Kazan festival.

In 1991, I began working on the music for the slide composition ‘Rarschach Rhapsody’ by P.K.Hoenich, who is known for his light pictures created with sunrays. The composition consisted of 40 sun projections with abstract and half-abstract forms. ‘Rorschach Rhapsody’ was performed at the symposium of the International Society for Polyaesthetic Education in September 1992 in Mittersill, Austria. In 1993, I collaborated with Valentina Vassilieva to compose a suite of 12 pieces entitled The Signs of the Zodiac. These compositions used the ANS along with the sounds of voices, natural noises and musical instrumentation. I am currently working on a fantastic piece named “An Unexpected Visit,” for ANS synthesizer with transformed natural noises and percussion instruments”

Stanislav Kreichi 2001

Yevgeny Alexandrovich Murzin. Russia 1914 - 1970
Yevgeny Alexandrovich Murzin. Russia 1914 – 1970

Biographical Information:

Murzin began his academic life studying municipal building at the Moscow Institute of Engineers. When Nazi Germany invaded the USSR in 1941 he joined the soviet Artillery Academy as a senior technical lieutenant. During his time in military service Murzin was responsible for developing an electro-mechanical anti aircraft detector which was later adopted by the soviet army. After the war Murzin joined the Moscow Higher Technical School where he completed a thesis on Thematics and was involved in the development of military equipment including an artillery sound ranging device, instruments for the guidance of fighters to enemy bombers and air-raid defence systems.

Murzin had a reputation as an admirer of jazz but when a colleague introduced him to the works of Scriabin, Murzin became obsessed with the composers work and synaesthetic concepts. It was these ideas that inspired Murzin to begin his ‘Universal Synthesiser’ project around 1948 which was to lead to the ANS synthesiser some decades later. Murzin presented his proposal to Boris Yankovsky and N.A.Garbuzov at the Moscow Conservatory where, despite initial reluctance, he was given space to develop the instrument. Despite almost universal disinterest in his project Murzin continued over the next decade to develop the ANS prototype with funds from his own finances and working in his spare time with the help of several friends (including composers E.N Artem’eva, Stanislav Kreychi, Nikolai Nikolskiy and Peter Meshchaninov).

The first compositions using the ANS were completed in 1958 and exhibited in London and Paris. The ANS was moved to the Scriabin Museum in 1960 (ul. Vakhtangov 11, Moscow) and formed the basis of the USSR’s first electronic music studio which was used throughout the sixties’ by many world famous composers including Schnitke, Gubaydulina, Artem’ev, Kreychi, Nemtin and Meshchaninov.

Murzin and the ANS
Murzin and the ANS

Sources

http://snowman-john.livejournal.com/33729.html

Andrei Smirnov: Sound in Z – Experiments in Sound and Electronic Music The Theremin Institute, Moscow

Boris Yankovsky “The Theory and Practice of Graphic Sound”. Leningrad, 1939-1940

“Composer As Painter” excerpt from “Physics and Music”, Detgiz, 1963
Bulat M. Galeyev, “Musical-Kinetic Art in the USSR,” LlonardoU, No. 1, 41-47 (1991)