Last month, the Concordia Chamber Players had a unique concert offering. Bracketed by the familiar comforts of Brahms and Mozart was something quite novel for classical chamber music— a piece written for Theremin. The Theremin is an electric instrument played without any physical contact but by interfering with the frequencies emitting from two antennae. While the novelty of the Theremin has made it the darling of eclectic hipster bands and Sci Fi soundtracks—the Theremin had originally been created with the intention of being incorporated into the classical setting.
The instrument is as visually peculiar as its sound. Its form is evocatively simple with one metal antenna poking up vertically from the side of a small box hiding the electronic guts. A second antenna juts horizontally from the other side in an asymmetric loop. The performer plays the Theremin with hands poised along invisible registers as though taking a solemn oath. One hand moves delicately through the air near the vertical rod, adjusting the pitch of the sound, while the hand hovers over the loop to control volume. The musician must keep his body rigid so as not to throw off the calibration of his hands, giving he or she a very stern countenance.
The Concordia held this concert in the beautiful stone Trinity Church in Solebury, where, perched on the hillside, it was complicit with the ebullient spring day. After a warm welcome from Michelle Djokie, the Concordias’ cellist and artistic director, the group eased into Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F K 370. This spritely piece mirrored the fluttering impressions of early spring growth outside. The Oboe gently dominated the piece with its sinewy nasal charm and become the counterpart to the Theremin in the piece that followed.
Theremin player (Thereminist?), Daryl Kubian gave an eloquent introduction to his instrument, detailing the fascinating life of its creator, Leon Theremin. His musical instrument was accidentally born out of the scientific investigation of the high frequency oscillator as an accurate measuring device. By measuring the temperatures of gases and electric signals with his oscillator, Theremin found that the properties of its sensitivity had other applications. Adding audio circuitry created a corresponding tone that became the voice of the Theremin. Being an avid Cellist as well as inventor, Theremin took to performing with his instrument and trying to find acceptance in classical ensembles. Kubian shared the anecdote of a performance in which Theremin stood behind Vladimir Lenin and operated the Premiers’ hands on the instrument like a puppet.
Theremin’s hope for serious appreciation of his electric instrument has been affirmed in Darryl Kubian. Kubian is the first violinist in the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and is also a composer. In his compositions he has tried to bridge the gap between electrical and acoustic instruments to create music with a wider sonic range. The Theremin’s individual range is unique— covering eight octaves and having qualities of woodwinds, cellos and most notably, the human voice. That shifting definition gives a subtly unsettling feeling to the Theremins’ sound and makes it stand out to the ear.
The piece that the Concordia performed was a potent fantasia written specifically for the Theremin by the Czech composer, Bohuslav Martinu. The piece begins aggressively with a collective thrashing of the instruments and then pacifies when the Theremin enters the scene. From there the Theremin’s sound wilts and revives, then spirals towards release. Again it is pummeled by the mob of thrashing minor notes, again it escapes, and then sounds like it is being chased by the sawing of violins and pounding of the piano keys.
While the Theremin takes on the qualities of the human voice, it also seems to take on the role of an actual human. It exudes so much personality and distinction that it becomes a real character, or at least it did in this particular composition. I found it an interesting paradox that the least elemental of the instruments, the least natural, became the stand-in for a human. This effect seemed in part due to the slight inaccuracy of the Theremin—which is not to say that Kubian didn’t play it with great aplomb—the Theremin just appears incapable of full refinement. The lack of real tangible feel to a string or a valve gives a certain reaching quality to the notes, as though each movement of his hand in the air was making infinitesimally slight corrections in accordance to the ear.
Virtuosity can express certain human emotion and musical thought in profound ways, but it also can mask others. Imperfection has the power of tapping into the humility of human experience. The Theremin capitalizes on imperfection and it makes the sound of human aspiration and tragedy. Though the Theremin doesn’t seem capable of blending in with the traditional instruments, it creates an intriguing balance— a chilly self-doubt to the warm certainty of wood, string and brass.