Obscure Russian composer (1892-1954) and religious fanatic turned expatriate bricklayer whose rarely staged or recorded works frothed with mystical intensity and feverish morbidity. The composer typically instructed his performers to sing and play "in the anguish of death", and he poured a lot of his own blood—literally—into his work.
Obouhov's pre-WWI experiments with 12-tone harmonies pre-dated Schœnberg. In 1918, he fled the revolutionary ferment of his native land and emigrated to Paris.
In France, he constructed one of the earliest electronic instruments, the "Croix Sonore" (Sonorous Cross), which was similar to and contemporaneous with the Ondes Martenot. The device was intended to be used as part of a large-scale work that took Obouhov about 20 years to complete—La Livre de Vie (The Book of Life), a magnum opus numbering approximately 2,000 pages.
While developing the work, the burly Obouhov lived in poverty with his Russian wife and scraped by on a bricklayer's wages. In their tiny apartment, he built a shrine that sheltered La Livre's score, which had been notated with bar numbers printed in red Maltese crosses and tempi etched in the composer's own blood. The work lay under candles that burned round the clock. Obouhov's wife, in a fit of anger, once sliced up the manuscript, leaving the composer to carefully bandage the dismembered work while tracing all cuts with yet more of his own blood.
La Livre had other peculiarities. For the musicians, Obouhov designed mystical robes emblazoned with crucifixes, and he arranged the orchestra in a cross pattern for the performance, which was designed to take place in an outdoor temple. The composer believed that if La Livre were to be performed correctly and in its entirety, it would invoke the return of the last Russian emperor, whom Obouhov believed wasn't dead, but in hiding. Movements were performed, but the work was never staged in its entirety. (Too bad—the emperor remains in seclusion)
Obouhov wrote other, more modest works, which nonetheless dripped with gothic embellishments. Score notations challenged performers to sing or play their parts "with ecstatic horror" or while "groaning and shrieking". Instructions to vocalists might include whistling, performing "with an insane smile", delivering words "with malignancy", or giving the appearance of "suffering furiously". It was not uncommon for his music to change time signatures eight times within a few bars.
This unconventional composer earned the respect of Ravel (who called him a genius) and Honegger (who wrote a preface to Obouhov's book The Treatise of Tonal, Atonal, and Total Harmony, and asked him to notate some of his work). In his 30s Obouhov gained a patron in the French countess Mme. Aussenac de Broglie, who set him up in a house and supported his artistic endeavors for the rest of his life.
Upon his death, Obouhov left over 75 works, which are rarely performed and most of which have never been recorded.
I wish there was some way to convince one of the orchestras around here to give it a go without donating an obscene amount of money (which I don't have). Ah well.