LA JOLLA — Earlier this year the gurus of New Age thinking added "harmonic convergence" to popular speech. But in the realm of classical music, invoking mystical overtones and the "music of the spheres" is no novelty.
This week, the UC San Diego music department has been presenting a festival of concerts devoted to mystical music, which they've coyly named "Mystic Encounters."
Tonight's program at the school's Center for Music Experiment is a performance and discussion of Olivier Messiaen's "La Vision de l'Amen" by duo pianists Karl and Margaret Kohn.
Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, Alexander Scriabin's rarely heard magnum opus, "Prometheus: Poem of Fire," will by mounted by the La Jolla Civic/University Symphony and Chorus with piano soloist Cecil Lytle. An early 20th-Century Russian composer, Scriabin was an eccentric mystic who was also a student of theosophy.
"Prometheus," which is noted in every music text for being built on what the composer called a "mystic" chord of six notes, was written for the celebrated conductor Serge Koussevitzky. In its 1911 premiere, Scriabin himself played the piano solo.
"Scriabin wanted the work to be a kind of delirium," explained UCSD graduate student Lee Ray, who is organizing the symphonic poem's extra-musical components. "He planned 'Prometheus' as a kind of spectacle like the grandiose works of Berlioz." Ray also pointed out that Scriabin's last work, "Mysterium," which was never completed, had apocalyptic overtones.
"He intended to have it performed in a Tibetan monastery, and its performance would coincide with the end of the world," Ray said.
Fortunately, Scriabin died before he was able to complete "Mysterium."
Part of the "Prometheus" spectacle is the use of a color organ that projects 11 different hues above the heads of the performers.
"In Scriabin's view, certain sounds were paired with specific colors," said Thomas Nee, conductor of the La Jolla orchestra. "He notated a part for the lighting effect, with each note having a specific color."
Ray said this color organ did not exist in Scriabin's time, so the work has rarely been properly performed, but musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky listed a performance that employed a laser apparatus at the University of Iowa in 1975. To realize the composer's original intentions, Nee and Ray contacted John Forkner of Laguna Beach, inventor of the "tympanum luminorum."
"Forkner's invention is not a laser machine--it's not electronic at all," Ray said. "It's an optical synthesizer, a clockwork mechanism of mirrors and wires. You might call it a handmade art deco gizmo."
Besides the projections of the "tympanum luminorum" above and behind the performers, Ray will have lasers filling the space above the audience, an effect obviously not called for in Scriabin's score.
"We wanted to engage all the volume of the performance hall in this piece," Ray said.
To give the winds and piano prominence, Ray has built platforms of graduated heights--lighted from below--for the wind players and pianist Lytle, who will be placed above and behind the orchestra, rather than in the usual concerto front-and-center position.
The remainder of Nee's concert program includes Gustav Holst's Choruses from the "Rig Veda," Richard Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration" and Charles Ives' "The Unanswered Question." Nee said Holst was always interested in Indian religious philosophy, and learned Sanskrit to translate the "Rig Veda" texts for his choruses.
"Ives' work is a typical piece of New England Transcendentalism," Nee said. In it, the solo trumpeter intones the question of existence--according to program notes Ives penned above the score--and the soft strings equal the silences of the ancient Druids. Mystic indeed.