Review of The University of Iowa’s
Performance of Scriabin’s Prometheus,
September 24, 1975,
Hancher Auditorium

High Fidelity / Musical America, January 1976


Scriabin in color by The University of Iowa

A new experience has been added to the University of Iowa’s collection of distinctions. On September 24 at the bright new Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City, the [School of Music] gave Alexander Scriabin’s theosophical fifth symphony, Prometheus, The Poem of Fire, a splendid performance replete with multi–color light projections from a laser deflection system.

To the authorities’ surprise, the hall which [seated 2,500 in 1975] was jam–packed long before curtain time, and the scant supply of program notes exhausted. Bus loads of students and visitors, some coming from as far away as one hundred miles, continued to arrive until the police began to block off all further traffic. A hopeful crowd of 1,500 people milled about outside, until finally the announcement came that an unprecedented second performance would be given later in the night. Word spread quickly, the lines grew, and programs to the first performance were black–marketed at a quarter apiece.

Lowell Cross, professor of music and resident genius of electronics at the University, conceived, realized, and operated the “light shows.” Setting up his elaborate equipment in the balcony—an electronic keyboard to control the colors[,] … a circuitry panel of knobs, [and] mirrors, prisms, scanners, and “choppers”—Cross flashed his spectrum of krypton–argon laser beams in giddying patterns on a huge scrim screen which translucently hid the one hundred–member orchestra on stage. At either side of the screen sat a thirty–two member chorus robed in white, onto which the play of lights spilled and even, at times, enveloped the walls of the auditorium, expanding and diminishing with the music’s intensity.

For the first time outside the U.S.S.R Scriabin’s color scheme was loyally followed: C = red; F sharp = intense blue; E flat = the glint of steel; B flat = the shine of moonlight, etc.

[Editor’s note: Here the reviewer and English–language biographer, Faubion Bowers, errs. In Scriabin’s imagined color/tonal associations, B flat was “with a metallic shine.” “The shine of moonlight” is closest to Scriabin’s whitish–blue, shared by E and B. —LC]

Prometheus, written in 1909, was the world’s first multi–media composition. It demands not only colors (which Scriabin specified) but [also] kinetic images and designs, about which Scriabin was vague. Cross, studiously obeying the composer’s programmatic annotations, made the “gift of fire” a ball of saturated red which blazed, twisted, turned, gnarled, and unraveled like a skein of astral ectoplasm.

[Editor’s note: Bowers’ own published identification of the point in the score where the “gift of fire” takes place is five measures before [1] (three muted trumpets) in the original printed Edition Russe de Musique (1911). Here, the color has just changed from “steely” to green, not red, over a “color organ pedal point” of blue—this “intense” blue lasts from the opening “mystic” chord through many measures after the muted three–trumpet call. See Bowers: Scriabin (published first as a two–volume biography) and The New Scriabin. —LC]

The long organ point of “yellow” became a whirling sun which spun and ricocheted over the screen.

At both performances the audience yelled, cheered, whistled, and stamped their feet in appreciation of the experience of listening to music with their eyes. Certainly, in Cross’s expert hands, Prometheus manifested Scriabin’s now [in 1975] sixty–five–year–old vision [ninety–five–year old vision in 2005], and proved that lights and colors accompanying music need not be a distraction but rather what Scriabin always said, “a complementary and mutual enhancement.”

Professor James Dixon, a Mitropoulos disciple, conducted obligingly, and Professor James Avery obediently performed the solo piano part in this concerto–symphony.