My theremin is a musical instrument, an instrument of the air. Its two antennas emerge from a closed wooden box. The pitch antenna is tall and black, noble. The closer your right hand gets, the higher the theremin’s tone. The second antenna controls volume. It is bent, looped, gold, and horizontal. The closer you bring your left hand, the softer the instrument’s song. The farther away, the louder it becomes. But always you are standing with your hands in the air, like a conductor. That is the secret of the theremin, after all: your body is a conductor …
Canadian author Sean Michaels’ debut novel (Random House) was called Us Conductors and the quotation above is from it. When Michaels won the 2014 Giller prize the citation read: “He succeeds at one of the hardest things a writer can do: he makes music seem to sing from the pages of a novel.” It’s based on the life of Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the Russian-born inventor of the theremin, set in the glittery Jazz Age of New York in the 20s, the grim gulags and prisons of Stalin’s 1930s Soviet Union, and includes Terman’s love affair with a beautiful young violinist – Clara Rockmore. Full disclosure: after a few pages I forgot entirely that I was reading fiction, and in the end was left with a fascination I have not been able to shake.
There’s something about the theremin and its ethereal voice that makes it hard to brush off because you just can’t put your finger on it – figuratively or literally. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) composer Miklós Rózsa used the theremin for a kind of alienation leitmotif. All you need to do is hear a little of that soundtrack and the entire film will slither back into your mind and ear-worm you for days.
On November 16 (7:30pm), Hedgehog Concerts presents a performance in Toronto’s intimate concert jewel-box – Heliconian Hall. It will offer the opportunity for a close encounter with the instrument that gives that supernatural something to film and television scores for science fiction and thrillers.
But when first introduced in concert halls of North America, Great Britain and Europe, the repertoire was art music: Schubert and Glinka, for example, at Albert Hall where “The human voice, the violin, viola, cello, bass and double-bass, the cornet, horn, trombone, saxophone, organ, and almost every instrument you can think of, are all beaten at their own game by this one simple little apparatus” (The Musical Standard, London 1927). A hundred years later, while the theremin’s capacity for beauty is often and unjustly overlooked, it is newly championed by its closest friends.
Pamelia Stickney is one of these – a leading player in the theremin world, who will help us celebrate the instrument’s centennial year, along with Viennese pianist Thessi Rauba, performing three specially commissioned sonatas for theremin and piano by Canadian composer Alexander Rapoport – including the Canadian premieres of Sonata No.2 and Sonata No.3. Rapoport will introduce the works himself.
Composer-in-residence with the Talisker Players from 2001 to 2017, Rapoport’s had diverse commissions for orchestral, choral and chamber music, film scores, and incidental music for live theatre and musical comedy. But this new theremin learning curve was more or less self-inflicted.
Rapoport became aware of Stickney through Rauba, who is Rapoport’s wife. Stickney and Rauba had already worked together in Vienna. Rapoport did some arrangements for them and they decided he should write an original piece. “The First Sonata was a lot of fun, so I was able to talk them into letting me do two more. I wish I could do a hundred or so, as Haydn did with his symphonies and string quartets. By that time you’ve learned something.”
Stickney began her musical career as a Los Angeles jazz/rock musician after spending her teens playing piano, violin, viola, cello and contrabass. She had her first personal encounter with the instrument while working on a recording project in 1999. Stickney’s jazz background led to what emerged as a walking bass theremin technique. Today, based in Vienna, she performs internationally, and collaborates and records with a wide range of artists and ensembles. Stickney was instrumental to the final design of Robert Moog’s Etherwave Pro theremin.
Pianist and educator, Thessi Rauba, is active in Vienna’s alternative music scene, performing with her brother, instrument-inventor Hans Tschiritsch, thereminist Stickney, and accordionist Otto Lechner. She also performs one-person shows combining piano performances with literary readings. Rauba plays and records a diverse repertoire including jazz, popular and classical music.
Will it be gimmicky? Rapoport had this to say: “Wait until you hear Pam play! The theremin is a thoroughly legitimate instrument with special capabilities and also limitations, just like any other. It is also an instrument where a performer’s individual expression comes out much more than you would imagine, in my view because of the infinite variation in intonation and vibrato.”
The last word here goes to Sean Michaels:
The theremin has always been a machine with two strangenesses. There is the strangeness of the playing: palms flexing in empty space, as if you are pulling the strings of an invisible marionette. But the stranger strangeness is the sound. It is acute. It is at once unmodulated and modulating. It feels both still and frantic. For all my tweakings of timbre, the theremin cannot quite mimic the trumpet’s joyous blast, the cello’s steadying stroke. It is something Else.
Yes, the Elseness is what brings audiences to their feet. It is what inspires composers like Schillinger and Varèse. But there is no escaping the other part, too: like the pallor of an electric lightbulb, like the heat of an electric stove, the theremin’s sound is a stranger to the Earth.
MJ BUELL is the regular writer of We Are ALL Music’s Children