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Alchemy Of Sound: On The Occult And Soviet Synthesizers


The origins of electronic music, via the first synthesizers, were influenced by precepts of magic and the occult.

The father of futurist music, a Russian occultist and experimental composer by the name of Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin, inspired the creation of an optoelectronic machine capable of converting into sound any symbols sketched onto a large pane of glass: the Soviet ANS synthesizer.

Scriabin was passionate about theosophy, music and occult philosophy: an orthodox of Nietzschean free will, the synthesis of Hegel and the doctrine of Madame Blavatsky. He had synesthesia, and built a keyboard with multicolored speakers (tastiera per luce) on which he assigned a tonal value to a color to obtain a synchronicity between them and the harmony of his compositions.

Taking theologian precepts, Alexander synthesized, as an alchemist of sounds, his esoteric vision using lights and sonic tonalities. His work Mysterium would put music to a kind of apocalyptic ritual, a transition from earthly humankind to the super being, and which would take place in the Himalayas. However, his premature death prevented the consummation of that plan.

Scriabin was briefly reborn in 1938 when engineer Yevgeny Murzin created the ANS synthesizer, the initials of which were in honor of his name. Based on the technology of sketched sound, the new prototype worked using drawings sketched onto a plate of glass with dark putty. The machine would read the plate using a light emission and turn the sketch into sounds in real time. The deep or high-pitched tones were measurable depending on the location of the drawing.

Surprisingly, the ANS synthesizer translated what could be the sonic alchemy of the USSR of the Second World War: a device that recreated occultist symbols in harmonies. Furthermore, Murzin was not a musician but an engineer who spent 20 years completing the project at a time when private technological development was considered a crime. Many Russian inventors were frustrated during that period, and even obligated to destroy their creations.


It was not until 1958 that the ANS saw the light of day as a finished prototype and in 1960 Murzin carried out his Experimental Study in Electronic Music, in which avant-garde Russian musicians recorded their works as AHC – Электронная музыка (ANS – Electronic Music). The composer Eduard Artemyev even came up with musical experiments using the ANS, such as the soundtrack to Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris, for example, that begins with a fabulous version of a choral prelude by Bach using that synthesizer.

The history of electronic music between the wars is closely linked to the various technological prototypes that the Soviet Union manufactured between suprematism and the industrial progress of the period in question. Of the same era as Yevgeny Murzin, Russian inventor Léon Theremin developed one of the most fascinating and strangest machines: the æterphone or theremin (as it was better known), which synthesizes movement and sound, while the ANS synthesized sound with images. Like Murzin, Léon Theremin also played with sound, light and movement distillation, and even worked on several occasions to try to unite smell and touch in one prototype.

Musician-engineers such as Italian futurist Luigi Russolo, Russians Boris Yankovsky and Arseny Avraamov and, more recently, the magicians of the Coil minimalist experimentation – who also used the ANS to compose one of their albums – showed a special interest in the magic of synthesis; fusions not of chemical metals but of a series of occult doctrines that became the most valuable gold of Soviet music: the birth of electronica.

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