You might be asking yourself, “Who even is Nicholas Obuhov?” I know that’s what I first asked myself when I came across him in a general music chronology of 1924.
The description indicated that he finished his score for “Le Livre de Vie” – so that’s pretty normal – except that this score happens to be 2,000 pages long. oh and also, he made his own notation system replacing symbols with crosses to express his devotion . oh and also, he wrote those expressions in his own blood to reflect the bloodshed of the Russian Revolution. I think you can understand why I was intrigued.
I set out to find as much information about this interesting character, but to add even more interest, the information available is pretty limited (in part because there are various spellings of his name eg. Nicolai, Nicolaj, Obukov, Obukoff due to the translation from Russian). Here are some other interesting tidbits I was able to find about him:
1. He was Russian émigré that moved to Paris in 1918. 1
2. He called himself “Nicolas L’Illuminé.” 2
3. He completed his 2,000 page long score “Le Livre de Vie” (The Book of Life) in 1924. Here’s a video of the Preface of this piece:
4.”Le Livre de Vie” includes moaning, screaming, shrieking and hissing noises. 3
5. Ravel thought he was a genius and even supported him financially,
7. He invented the “La Croix Sonore,” an electronic instrument, which was also in the shape of a cross.5
The video below is one of Obuhov’s songs featuring the croix sonore :
8. Obuhov was a brick-layer in Paris on the side.
9. His notation system of crosses was pretty handy; it eliminated the need for sharps and flats. 6
10. Obuhov invented the 12-tone harmony containing all 12 notes of the chromatic scale without duplication.
So there you have it! The top 10 things you should know (or the top 10 interesting things I could find) about this mysterious figure in 1920’s Parisian music.
1 Maurice Ravel, A Ravel Reader ed. Arbie Orenstein (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 194