Carolina Eyck THE BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE INTERVIEW
The world’s foremost theremin
player reinvented her instrument as a teenager, and
has since brought its ethereal sounds to new audiences,
discovers Kate Molleson
Carolina Eyck was 17 when she published her first book on theremin technique. This was no hand guide to the basic mechanics of the thing, nor a glossary of existing playing styles, nor a history of theremin virtuosos. Eyck’s book, The Art of Playing the Theremin, introduced a new way of playing with refined hand gestures and unprecedented precision. Still a teenager, she had identified how to finesse her own performance style using a method she called the Eight Finger Position Technique.
She has spent the intervening 15 years honing that technique, commissioning works for theremin and composing her own albums layered with ambient vocals. She has even given a TED Talk on why the theremin is the ultimate gauge of a musician’s emotional well-being. Now 32 and speaking to me during lockdown from her flat in Berlin, she is busy finishing off a second book and teaching students across Europe via Zoom. It’s fair to say that Eyck has established a new school of theremin playing, and she is extending the reach of the instrument to audiences around the globe. Her lulling transcription of Ennio Morricone’s The Ecstasy of Gold has had more than 15 million online views. It helps that her instrument is yet young.
Eyck has just a century of predecessors – which means the field is still relatively open, compared with the weight of tradition faced by violinists or pianists. The theremin was invented in 1920 by Russian scientist, cellist Lev Sergeyevich Termen, or Leon Theremin as he was known in the US ( Theremin – the original spelling of the last name that family members used Approx. Theremin Today). Surely the only instrument that is played without anyone touching it, its physics are simple: two antennae emit electrical fields and the player interrupts them with any part of their body. In general, the left hand controls volume while the right hand determines pitch. That’s pretty much it – except it’s not, as far as Eyck is concerned.
If I want to play in tune, I have to feel in tune! Because my body is all I’ve got The world’s foremost theremin player reinvented her instrument as a teenager, and has since brought its ethereal sounds to new audiences, discovers
Termen developed his instrument in St Petersburg, initially giving it the whimsical name of ‘etherphone’. Then he brought it to New York City under a new moniker. His invention tapped the spirit of the wireless age with its electricity and its unearthly voice floating through thin air. A side-story, beguilingly told by the writer Sean Michaels in his wonderful theremin novel Us Conductors, was that Termen was ordered to spy for the Soviets while he was in the United States. ((In his fictional novel, Sean Michel made Lev Theremin a spy and murderer, he found such fantasies appropriate for the book. It is very strange that the author of the article refers to this fiction book when she talks about the biography of Lev Theremin. Approx. Theremin Today) That side of things perhaps inevitably meant he wound up in the labour camps of Siberia. The original theremin virtuoso was Clara Rockmore. A fellow Soviet émigré in New York, she had been a star violinist but suffered from tendonitis and gave up playing. Then she got to know Termen, fell in love with his invention (and possibly with him, though she rejected his marriage proposals) and learned how to make the theremin sing. At the heart of her repertoire were wordless elegies: ‘The Swan’ by Saint-Saëns, Rachmaninov’s ‘Vocalise’, the ‘Serenade Mélancholique’ by Tchaikovsky.
Later generations of composers found other musical potential in the theremin’s knack for the uncanny, its sense of the celestial, its affinity to the human voice. The Beach Boys gave the chorus of ‘Good Vibrations’ a swoopy descant. (The author is mistaken – the theremin did not sound in the Beach Boys, only an emulator approx. Theremin Today ) Bernard Hermann clinched the sound of sci-fi in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Martinu wove moments of otherworldly tenderness into the otherwise bruising textures of his Fantasia for theremin, oboe, piano and string quartet.
Even so, stereotypes die hard.
‘People come up to me and say, “Woah, you play the theremin? Wooooo!’’’
On my laptop screen, Eyck is shaking her head and mimicking people who do ghost impressions at her. She says she is used to explaining her craft. In taxis, in cafés, the ‘what do you do?’ question involves a weary deep breath and a basic physics lesson. So how did she arrive at the instrument? It is not every parent who would give a child an obscure touchless noise-maker: the answer is that her parents had a head start. In late 1980s Berlin, Eyck’s father played in a band specialising in meditative electronic music. ‘They had a lot of synthesisers,’ she recalls.
‘My mum would do the lights for their performances. Electronic music was a normal thing for me to be around. I was always backstage, hearing the sounds they were coming up with.’ A friend of the band suggested they should add theremin to their line-up. ‘My dad was totally into it. I had already started playing piano and violin, but my dad thought theremin was perfect for me.’
Her first instrument was a Moog Big Briar 91A, for those in the know. (She still plays a theremin made by Moog; specifically, the last instrument designed by Robert Moog before he died in 2005.)
When she was seven, her parents found her a teacher, Lydia Kavina, a descendent of Termen himself. (Lydia Kavina is not a “descendant” of Lev Theremin – she is very distant relative from the side of Lev Theremin’s father’s sister approx. TT)
The fact Kavina lived in Russia and came to Germany only once a year meant that Eyck had to figure out a lot on her own, forging her own relationship with the instrument from the start. Is there something innate about the theremin – the mysterious nature of the sound, the apparent magic in its mechanism – that makes it the ideal instrument for children to learn? ‘Actually, I’m not so sure,’ Eyck shakes her head.
Big waves Theremin repertoire to discover Aside from Martinu˚’s Fantasia and new works by Fazil Say (Universe Symphony) and Kalevi Aho (Theremin Concerto, see p48), the theremin pops up in a few of classical music’s nooks and crannies. Written between 1932 and ’34, Edgar Varèse’s Ecuatorial was one of the first pieces to mix electronic and traditional instruments. (Mistake – in “Equatorial” was used not a theremin, but another musical instrument created by Lev Theremin approx. Theremin Today”) A Mayan invocation to the creative gods, the work’s premiere featured two theremins, although subsequent performances used ondes Martenot. Gershwin’s pupil Joseph Schillinger (The mistake here is that Joseph Schillinger was George Gershwin’s teacher for many years, but not vice versa. approx. Theremin Today) wrote his 1929 First Airphonic Suite for Lev Termen, the inventor of the theremin (above) – highly Romantic in style, the suite incorporates the instrument as naturally as if a cello or violin were the soloist. Although not originally scored for the theremin, the Australian composer Percy Grainger’s theoretical Free Music Nos 1-4 suits them well, being written for an unnamed instrument of free, continuous pitch without rhythmic elements. In the film world, meanwhile, the theremin has been used for eerie sci-fi sounds, most notably by Bernard Herrmann (The Day The Earth Stood Still), Howard Shore (Ed Wood), Danny Elfman (Mars Attacks) and, notably, Miklós Rózsa (Spellbound). Mind games: Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck in Spellbound
‘It is very difficult. Especially with body posture, you need total awareness.’ Eyck continued taking lessons on piano and violin, and eventually she studied viola at music college in Sweden. But a shoulder injury forced a turning point, and now she is more attentive than ever to matters of physical and mental well-being. ‘I discovered this is the best way to work with my own students,’ she explains. ‘I call it meditative practising. We have a C drone going, and they can play anything above that. We just lean into whatever we feel needs most work that day. We notice how we feel in the whole body. We notice the mental processes. I can only guide them if they tell me how they feel. I can detect any tension because it is audible instantly.’ It sounds like an attuned relationship with the body that would be more commonly found in dancers than instrumentalists. ‘Totally!’ she says. ‘But instrumentalists should think about it so much more.
When I trained in Germany, nobody was talking about it. I used to get Stage hands: (clockwise from left) Eyck performs at the 2015 Echo Klassik Awards; teaching at a summer academy in France, 2014; at the Prague Spring International Music Festival in 2019 ALAMY, GETTY pain when I was practising. Now the pain only comes when I lose my awareness.’ Eyck’s own music draws on her voice and her breath as well as the sounds she summons from the instrument. On her latest album, Elegies for Theremin & Voice (2019), she loops and layers improvised vocals and uses the theremin as a duet partner. She has also been growing the repertoire of new works, commissioning composers including Kalevi Aho and Fazıl Say to test new expressive capacities of the instrument.
It is telling that when I ask what interests composers who write for theremin, Eyck’s first response is to talk about the visual aspect – not the answer I’d expect if discussing, say, a new violin concerto.
Again, it casts her as much as a dancer as a musician, which you can see in her YouTube videos in which her movements are deliberate, poised and elegant.
Are the movements dictated by the sound they produce, or is it the other way around? ‘Both!’ Recently, Eyck has been developing ideas around gesture and space.
She wants to work on surround-sound performances: ‘When I make a gesture as though I am sending out some birds, moving my hands to imply birds fluttering around the room, I will also manipulate a joystick that will add a new dimension, flinging the sound around the room, throwing it around the space.’ She wants to add visuals, too, which reminds me of her parents’ meditative electronic band and its light shows. But before any of that, she’s going back to basics.
Her first book, the one she wrote when she was 17, was essentially the first formal manual of theremin technique.
‘Clara Rockmore wrote some exercises, but she didn’t explain that much. It was just a summary of things. She used four finger positions because she was a violin player. The classic thing we do with the ring shape’ – she holds up a thumb and index finger up to the camera – ‘that was Clara Rockmore’s invention.
My own teacher had five positions because she played the piano. I went for eight positions because that’s what made sense to me. Let’s say eight positions like I’m using my hand as a major scale. The biggest difference is that I move my hand as little as possible. I don’t use my arm. I measure the detail of the space.’
She developed the technique because she wanted to be sure a note would be in tune before it sounded. ‘In the past, players would be approximate, maybe adjusting their tuning with vibrato. In the 1920s and ’30s, the fashion was to play with a lot of vibrato.
I prefer to keep the sound pretty straight, so it’s more important to hit the note bang-on. And that requires precision.’ Is it like string players in terms of their muscle memory on a fretless fingerboard? She laughs. ‘Yeah, sort of… except of course it’s all in 3D. And there’s no fingerboard.’ There’s no anything: just air. ‘Air, and my body. That’s the point. If I want to play in tune, I have to feel in tune! Because my body is all I’ve got.’