Artistic principles


First page of annotated score.

The seven main themes of Prométhée with the corresponding shapes.

Tongues of multicoloured fire...

The principles

When Skryabin wrote Prometheus, there was no technology to realise his ideas, as Rimington's instrument could at the best give a faint shadow of what the composer had in mind. What he did have in mind exactly, is very hard to know, and quite an amount of research was done to find out. A score from 1913, with numerous annotations, proved to be a highly valuable source. They were noted down during a lunch in Moscow, in Leonid Sabaneyev's handwriting but dictated by the composer.
This score, preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, contains exhaustive indications to the realisation of the luce part. Also, it contains the most detailed description known of the colours corresponding to the notes in the score.

Skryabin imagined his note-colour relationship purely intuitively and subjectively. However, there is a certain logic to his approach, projecting the circle of colours more or less onto the circle of fifths. Attempts have been made to see a direct relationship between light frequency and sound frequency. This would result in a chromatic scale of colours (C red, C sharp purple and so on). However, neighbouring chromatic tones are dissonant, whereas neighbouring colour frequencies give harmonious relationships. Considering the fifth as the most consonant interval within the octave, it seems plausible to let it represent neighbouring colours.
There has been some misunderstanding around details of the colour scale conceived by Skryabin. This is due to variants of the scale as transmitted by his friend and intimate Sabaneyev, and to faulty translations of the colour names. In this project the variant of the annotated score was chosen.
Some of the indications in this score refer to the purity (saturation) or, on the contrary, to the paleness of some colour-notes, making it desirable at certain points to modulate the basic colours of the scheme towards white/grey or toward a neighbouring colour.

Other indications in this very interesting document refer to the shape of colour patterns and the separation of the two independent voices. The two voices of the luce part indeed need to be strictly separated. The upper voice follows the fundamental of the harmony that is heard at any given moment. It changes relatively quickly; sometimes in a very fast tempo. This voice is the light counterpart of the music itself; it is the synaesthetic representation of the audible parts in the score. 
The lower voice offers a completely independent counterpoint to this constantly changing colour. In this voice, the colour changes only 6 times during the whole piece, apart from a couple of rests. A passing note (E sharp) in bar 459 is due to a misprint in the first edition, and the number of notes is hence 7, a divine number. In fact this voice is full of metaphysical significance. It makes a slow ascent from F sharp in whole-tone steps, ending with the final F sharp; or rather a circular movement through the colour wheel of Skryabin by double steps, representing the pure colours. The pitches don't correspond to any musical element except for the final F sharp major chord but symbolise the steps in the evolution of the human race: the spirit (blue, F sharp) becomes matter and human struggle (red, C) which again transcend into spirit. This voice should in no way mingle with the colours of the upper voice, except at certain points. It should be omnipresent as a kind of overall background, growing in intensity from a barely visible begin to an overwhelming finale.

Relation to the music
Whereas the lower voice lives its own life in a slow, constant progression, the upper voice reflects the musical events in the score. There are 11 themes in the piece; themes that can be ordered in 5 groups: 1) Prometheus or the Creative Spirit, 2) human will, 3) reason or consciousness, 4) lust, joy, ecstasy, and 5) fire, lightning and sparkles. The character of each musical event has to be reflected in the character of the colour and not in the colour itself; the latter being determined by the pitch noted in the part. At some points in the annotated score, the dynamic indications for the colour part (there are no dynamic markings in the original) conflict with the dynamic of the music. This suggests a certain contrapuntal relationship between upper voice and music.
In the design of the performance, one cannot ignore such indications. However, being of a rather psychological character, they are impossible to follow literally. Drawing inspiration from the spirit of the annotations the colours should nevertheless give a visual counterpart to the music. A mere rendering of the colours of the upper voice is not sufficient to match the great variety of timbres and the sparkling, vibrating quality in the music. This doesn't mean that the colour play follows the music exactly; rather, it comments and reacts to the musical events.
The colour projections should be varied dynamically and spatially. Staccato, portamento, crescendo/diminuendo, vibrato and tremulando are musical terms that can be translated into the visual field. The colours may be modulated in "pitch" (detuning within the colour circle), saturation (varying the white component), and intensity. They may be provided with hues of complementary colours in rainbow-like shapes. All these changes may be made abruptly (staccato) or more or less smoothly (legato, portato); in light technique terms, with cuts or cross-fades. They may apply to a change of colour-note or occur within a single note.
Moreover, the colours should not constantly fill the whole visual area. They should be alive; one colour may gradually overlap another in a certain spatial gesture; it may grow or shrink within itself; it may vibrate, flicker or shimmer. Here the colours may seem painted on the screens with large gestures; there the screens may fill up with sparks and flames. All this should reflect the extraordinary richness of the orchestral score.



The impact of the projections should fill the hall in the same way the music fills it with sound. First priority is given to the orchestral sound and to the quality of the colours displayed. Pure colours can only be displayed on a perfectly white and smooth surface. The orchestra should play in a fine concert hall which by definition has no smooth surfaces and can be only marginally modified without threatening the acoustics.
This is why the colour play is confined to the area behind and above the orchestra where the gaze of the audience is normally directed.
Hundreds of light sources project their colours on five vertical sheets of translucent projection screen. The background colour of the lower voice fills the gaps and the surrounding area, including the choir, clad in white, at the moment of its appearance. The third dimension introduced by this approach makes it possible to experience the colour counterpoint in a spatial way. 
The use of video techniques, laser beams and moving lights were found inappropriate for the performance. Beside other problems, these media don't correspond to the historical aesthetics of the score. Light bulbs did exist in 1910 although the means of controlling large numbers of them only recently came within reach thanks to digital techniques.

Live performance
Perhaps the most important feature of the project is the live character of the performance; the luce part is played like any other part in the score: by a musician being able to follow the conductor. This excludes the use of traditional light controlling equipment.
Musicians must be able to articulate their notes, to interpret their part within the framework of the total unity, led by the conductor. The same applies to the luce player. Some of the interpretation has to be done beforehand; the set-up of the colour synthesizer and the elaborated light score are the given elements. The rest is performed during the concert, using a keyboard specifically developed for this purpose.