Alexander Scriabin’s 100-year old musical fever dream sounds today like an early attempt at virtual reality.
Alexander Scriabin was a gifted and enigmatic Russian composer whose intensely personal musical language and style has earned him a well-deserved place in the pantheon of great composers. His music is desperately emotional, hauntingly beautiful… and sometimes downright weird.
That weirdness extends to the infamous and bizarre footnote adorning the biography of the complicated, mustachioed genius. Scriabin spent the last 12 years of his short life incrementally shifting from eccentric, to manic, to arguably delusional, as he grew obsessed with staging one work in particular — Mysterium. This magnum opus was to be a grand concert and multi-sensory experience, unparalleled in scale or spectacle — but it could only be performed once. Why? The grand finale of the performance, he claimed, would culminate in the end of the world.
Scriabin began the work of writing the music, scouting the performance location (in the Indian Himalayas, of course), and designing the multimedia experience in 1903. But by 1915, the composer was dead — and Mysterium would forever be left incomplete.
So, is Mysterium the work of an unhinged madman? Did Scriabin literally believe that the world would end in a feverish swirl of his own music and a logistically impossible apocalyptic carnival, somewhere deep in the Himalayas?
Or, was the vision for Mysterium an outgrowth of Scriabin’s intuition that an ambitious, multi-sensory experience might be the next great phase of artistic expression? Based on Scriabin’s vision — which included thousands of white-robed participants chanting, dancing, releasing scents into the air, ringing bells, and creating a vibrant visual spectacle — he clearly was convinced of another, higher plane of immersion that could be achieved by creators and consumers of art alike.
“[Mysterium will include] an orchestra, a large mixed choir, an instrument with visual effects, dancers, a procession, incense, and rhythmic textural articulation. The cathedral in which it will take place will… continually change with the atmosphere and motion of the Mysterium. This will be done with the aid of mists and lights, which will modify the architectural contours.”
— Alexander Scriabin
For an idea that surely lived as something awe-inspiring and spectacular in Scriabin’s mind, his description of Mysterium as being full of incense and “mists and lights” is a little sad (or at least underwhelming) from a 21st century perspective. Though his technological world might have been confined to rudimentary turn-of-the-century fog machines and colored lightbulbs, his imagination clearly had a much farther reach.
Scriabin’s wild vision was impeded by the time he lived in, but what if the composer were alive today?
In the last few years, there has been a dramatic resurgence of interest in virtual reality, spearheaded by the successfully Kickstarted company Oculus VR. This week, Facebook announced that they have acquired Oculus VR for the tidy sum of $2 billion — and while this buyout isn’t sitting well with the largely anti-Facebook video gaming community (who crowdfunded the technology into existence in the first place), there is no doubt that the addition of Facebook’s massive capital will bring virtual reality to consumers a lot sooner than expected.
This ain’t your 1990’s virtual reality, either — technology has now actually caught up to the concept, and the Oculus Rift device is supposedly incredibly immersive. The visual seal is entirely unbroken, with full wrap-around perspective and peripheral vision.
And while immersive video gaming might have been the inspiration behind the tech and the millions of crowdfunded dollars raised by Oculus, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made clear to his shareholders that their vision for the virtual reality platform extends far beyond games alone.
This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.
— Mark Zuckerberg
Zuckerberg described scenarios where instead of simply looking at friends’ pictures, you’re, essentially transported into an immersive replay of a memory. A recent art exhibit using the Oculus Rift headset showed participants what it was like to swap bodies — and even genders — with someone else. Facebook was also quick to point out the technology’s potential in fields like education (virtually “sitting” in a classroom) and health (“beaming” into a doctor’s office for a face-to-face chat).
Who knows what kinds of experiences virtual reality will provide us in the next few years, but the most intriguing factor has to be the sheer devotion that Oculus’ early prototypes have attracted. Users claim it’s so immersive that it’s actually disorienting, and even the 60,000 developer kit headsets that have been shipped are generating an unbelievable buzz from nearly everyone who straps one on and looks inside.
Sony is currently developing the Morpheus, its own VR technology built to complement the PS4, while Microsoft and Valve are rumored to be considering their own approaches to virtual reality as well. With Facebook dropping billions on the Oculus acquisition, the next leap in consumer-level augmented reality has become a question of not ‘if’, but ‘when’.
What kinds of experiences would Alexander Scriabin have dreamt up for his audiences if he had access to the Oculus Rift technology and a speedy, global internet connection? What kinds of experiences might future artists use this platform for? Potentially, we could experience a dramatic shift in the way we observe and participate in art: from spectators, to participants; from the back row, to atop the conductor’s podium.
It’s a simple hypothesis shared by both Scriabin and today’s virtual reality pioneers; that the closer we can get to precisely manipulating all aspects of the human sensory experience, the more powerfully we can imprint a lasting artistic impression.
See you in the (virtual) Himalayas.