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  • Nikolay Obukhov and the Croix Sonore
  • Rahma Khazam, writer (bio)

Introduction by Hans W. Koch

Of all the forgotten composers of the early 20th century, Nikolay Obukhov probably holds a solitary crown for occupying more space in the books of music theorists than in musical life: Independent of Schoenberg and well before him, Obukhov invented a horizontal (chord-based) 12-tone musical system that included a new notational system. He also composed a vast oeuvre in the tradition of Scriabin's idea of a mystical ritual signaling the end of composition as we know it and worked on new yet little-known instruments capable of expressing these ideas. Thanks to Ravel's support, his concerts in Paris were featured in 1930s newsreels and attended and discussed by Messiaen and other avant-garde composers. Yet today it is hard to find a recording of his music, let alone a score, while his musical remains are scattered all over Paris: His manuscripts are kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale; the remains of his Croix Sonore at the Musée de la musique at the Cité de la musique; and the ruins of his tomb—once crowned with a sculpture of the Croix Sonore—are in the Paris suburb of Saint-Cloud, where he spent his last years, incapacitated after being assaulted by brigands. The Croix Sonore, which is described in detail in the following article, might appear to some to be a cheap rip-off of the theremin, which preceded it by some years—a rip-off because it is also played without being touched, and cheap because the left hand actually manipulates a volume knob, whereas the theremin is played solely by moving one's hands in the air. Nevertheless, these facts should not obscure a proper evaluation: First, the theremin was not the only instrument based on the principle of heterodyning for sound generation (cf. Jörg Mager in Germany around 1918), and there is so far no trace of any contact between Obukhov and Theremin. Secondly, their goals were totally different: Whereas the theremin was a salon-instrument by its design and in terms of the music that was written for it, the Croix Sonore was intended as a ritualistic ingredient in a Gesamtkunstwerk. This informed everything from the instrument's shape to the priestess-like dress of the woman playing it (there are no reports that it was ever played by a man) to its sonority and the musical texture of the compositions created for it. The goal of the article that follows is to raise questions rather than supply answers. It sets out to bring the Croix Sonore to the attention of an intermedia-conscious audience, who, unlike the historians of 12-tone music, might pay it the homage it deserves.

Nikolay Obukhov and the Croix Sonore

A mystic who signed his name "Nicolas l'illuminé" (Nicholas the visionary) and made markings in his scores using his own blood, Nikolay Obukhov (1892--1954) played a pioneering role in the history of 20th-century music. Best known as one of the early dodecaphonic composers, he also conceived several innovative musical instruments. Among them, the Croix Sonore, or Sound Cross, reflected his mystical beliefs while proving a striking auditory and visual experience.

The idea of creating a new instrument capable of expressing his artistic and spiritual convictions had obsessed Obukhov ever since he left war-torn Russia in 1918. The émigré composer settled in Paris and in 1926 produced a prototype of the Croix Sonore, following it up with an improved version in 1934. This imposing instrument, built by Michel Billaudot and Pierre Dauvillier, was 175 cm high and consisted of a sphere measuring 44 cm in diameter. The sphere housed the electronic circuitry and was surmounted by a brass cross that acted as an antenna. As in the case of the theremin, which had been invented in 1919, body capacitance controlled heterodyning vacuum tube oscillators. The pitch was modified by moving one hand out from the central star on the cross and the volume by a hand-held device concealed in the player's other hand. Beyond its status as a musical instrument, however, the sound cross held...


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