By now we’re relatively used to seeing the theremin pop up here and there in different works, be them contemporary/modern classical, prog/kraut rock, EAI, or the genre known as Keiji Haino, but one thing that’s definitely been lacking is the consistent intervention of an instrumentalist’s perspective in the scene. By this I mean someone for whom the theremin is not simply part of a repertoire, but the main feature of their career, someone for whom the theremin is not just a sound, but a philosophical tool within a musical aesthetic. Enter Carolina Eyck, who has developed her musicianship around the theremin, and whose compositions truly reveal the uniqueness at work in the instrument’s performance, hinting at very exciting possibilities of a music whose future was already once lost to historical inertia.
One of the most interesting facts of the theremin is that it has been frequently championed by women instrumentalists*, deployed in settings both avant-garde and classical in which patriarchal impediments could be breached by sheer virtue of it being new. Like any good modernist invention, it was meant to electrify tradition out of its death throes, to shock its barely beating heart into the future of the machine, and women were at the forefront of this experiment. This is what makes some of the critic quotes about Eyck’s approach to the instrument so strange, from “Eyck modernizes the theremin, merging it within classical tradition” (Electronic Musician) to “[she] has done much to rid the theremin of its gimmick status and legitimize it as an instrument that can credibly take its place in any number of serious music contexts” (textura). The first one is a contradiction, while the second one faintly damns the theremin as if it deserved its status as pop-historical curiosity, but the fact is that Eyck belongs to that radical tradition of modernism and women whose antagonism -friendly or not- with classical music has produced great works of art and anti-art. Moreover, her expertise on this most modern of instruments extends our understanding of it, easily marred by the prejudice of “serious music”, kindling the fire of olden potential to see electricity running through the ruins of classicism.
And what is to find there is stunning. Since its invention, the theremin has always been compared to a woman’s voice, and while its uncanny electronic qualities have tended to dominate over its more organic associations, Elegies for Theremin & Voice retakes that thread and thoroughly explores the manners in which both instruments subtly overlap, become parallel, or swiftly break apart. Eyck doesn’t lose the opportunity, however, to build upon the theremin’s artifice, and the polyphonic arrangements of her own voice mirror the kaleidoscopic splendor of early modern music, so enamored with surfaces and spectacle, the power of the superficial to connect with something intimately, universally profound. Tracks like “Remembrance” weave together the onomatopoeic styling of minimalism with the emotional intensity found in the music of newer generations of composers like Nico Muhly or Caroline Shaw. Throughout the album, Eyck’s wordless voice traces a path that transitions without friction into the tones of the theremin, sometimes even to the point of non-distinction. In “Absence”, her glissandos imitate the theremin’s sways, and by the end of the track both instruments join in heartfelt lament: different, yet made akin.
“Presence” is perhaps the most avant-garde piece in the record, mostly due to the transformation both instruments are subjected to. While there’s a subtle focus on artifice throughout, here it becomes overt, suggesting no longer a quietly organic association but a fully mechanical one. The voice turns machine, and the machine no longer appears human: this is the theremin we’ve heard in film soundtracks, its uncanny qualities highlighting those of Eyck’s expressionistic mumbles. When “Friend” blasts into the scene right afterwards, with a chorus of the artist’s voice underlined by a theremin drone, the melding is complete – they are both machines as much as they are vibrant with life. Lest we forget, here come together two entirely different styles of performance, one relatively static, one that is almost dance-like; the liveliness of singing and of gentle gestures in the air are put in the service of sorrow, of a music that greatly articulates the solace that is mourning.
This is what the lost future of the theremin pointed towards: integration of art(ifice) and life, a new mechanical vitality led by new historical agents, by women virtuosas who would be capable of remaking the whole of classical canon in an instrument that sounded like one more among their voices, the possibility of a music entirely spoken by them. Eyck joins that utopian myth with a contribution that, even in an entirely different context, is still full of suggestions, of unexplored potential for musical relationships in modernist terms, and what a success it is. (David Murrieta Flores)
*Clara Rockmore (perhaps the most famous in this list, also a violinist, who recorded the fundamental The Art of the Theremin in 1977); Alexandra Stepanov (who was also a concert singer, and who participated in the initial campaigns to popularize the instrument in the 1930s); Lucie Bigelow Rosen (who belonged to a theremin ensemble, and who co-founded the Caramoor festival); Natasha Theremin (the daughter of Lev himself, and who was one of the few professional performers of the instrument in the 1970s); Barbara Buchholz (multi-instrumentalist, who also showcased new compositions for theremin in Touch! Don’t Touch! in 2006); Lydia Kavina (also related to Lev, promoter of the instrument in new music settings); Pamelia Stickney (who constantly crosses over into jazz and avant-garde music); and more recently the likes of Chileans Agnes Paz and Felina Noiz (exponents of their country’s electroacoustic music); Veronik (from Peru, and who has no trouble getting into the punk and experimental scenes); and various others who, like Eyck, have joined in this modernist historical current.