Katica Illényi – Music for Millions.
Peter Theremin: Once upon a time in the 1930s, dozens of Lev Theremin’s students demonstrated theremin by performing opera arias, transcriptions of instrumental classical music, and popular American Broadway songs.
Later, the theremin passed through a period of “space-age”, when electric musical instruments became part of futuristic soundtracks, a period of experiments and radical noise experiments in rock and avant-garde, then the years of evolution of electronic music into digital format.
During the time theremins also have changed, becoming more compact and more accessible. But at the same time, changed the perception of the instrument, changed the sound quality of theremin and these changes were far from the better. This also determined the pace of development of the theremin playing technique and highlighted the modern problems associated with the theremin and, of course, influenced the perception of the theremin by the audience.
In our time – in the era of the Internet – information is becoming more and more accessible and the theremin increasingly attracts the attention of listeners.
Katica Illényi has become, perhaps, the main thereminist in the Internet in recent years – her video “Once Upon a Time in the Wild West” Morricone went viral and gained millions of views on social networks and today inspires many people.
I am pleased to know that thanks to the Internet, the theremin is returning its melodic, lively and human sound more and more. And of course, this is due to the few musicians who feel the true soul of the theremin, we are gradually returning to the performing level that existed decades ago.
This interview opens a small series of conversations with a new generation of thereminists who started practicing theremin in the 21st century and can significantly influence the perception of the theremin in the future.
Masha Theremin discussed with Katica Illényi, a virtuoso Hungarian violinist, singer and thereminist, the life of a musician during quarantine, theremin approaches and the problems of the modern theremin.
Masha Theremin : Dear Katiсa, sometimes it seems to me that every step in your life is completely connected with music. As far as I know, you were born in a very musical family, you are the part of family musical dynasty. At what point did you definitely feel that you would be a professional musician?
Katica Illényi : I think the path of my musical life was determined at a very young age. I was 3 and a half years old when I started to play the violin. My parents were musicians. My father who was a violinist at the Hungarian National Opera House in Budapest, Hungary, was my first and best teacher. He was very strict and purposeful and he expected nothing less than perfection. He used to practice with me each and every day for hours. I owe everything to him. Together, with my 2 talented brothers and sister, our home was always filled with music.
At the age of 14, I was accepted into the historical Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest and admitted into their class of “special talents.” Nine years later, from that prestigious conservatory, I obtained my Masters’ degree as a violinist and music teacher.
As a newly graduated violinist, I felt that I not only wanted to play the violin but I also wanted to expand music throughout my whole being. This is when I decided that besides playing the violin, I will also sing and dance. I started to attend phonation classes, and next to the violin, my voice became my second instrument.
It’s unusual for a violinist to do this, but at the beginning of my career, I played the lead roles in theatrical plays and musicals. Of course, the violin played a very important part. Meanwhile I became familiar with the “lighter” genres of music such as jazz, and swing. I searched for stylistic specialties in the world of music which was not part of classical music.
My goal is do my own concerts with my own repertoire and arrangements. My solo career began in 2002. Since then, I have organized concerts each year, always with a new repertoire, mixing classical pieces and jazz and several musical genres.
Masha Theremin : Katiсa, what is theremin for you? Why is theremin interesting to you?
Katica Illényi: I will never forget that first night when I saw Clara Rockmore playing The Swan on the theremin on YOUTUBE. At first, I didn’t notice that she was playing a musical instrument. I just wondered, “How can it be possible for somebody to sing in such a high pitch?” But then, I saw that she was moving her hands, and under the video, there was written a word, “Theremin.” I googled it immediately. “What does the word theremin mean?” It turned out that it was a musical instrument. I got so excited that I couldn‘t sleep for the whole night. I read everything that I found on the internet, and the very next day I went to buy a theremin because I was 100 % sure that I would be able to learn this musical instrument. Because I play the violin and I sing, too, and the theremin sounds like a human voice or a string instrument, I immediately fell in love with the theremin.
How I learned to play my first theremin is another interesting but rather long story full of enthusiasm, struggles, hopes, and joys. It was not easy at all! I could write a book about it.
Since then theremin has become a part of my life and my concerts. Here in Hungary, I am the only one who plays the theremin in concerts. My biggest goal and dream has been to acquaint Hungarian people with the theremin, and I think my mission has been successful.
Masha Theremin: Katica, you have already won the sympathy of many people, not only the Hungarian audience, your videos on YouTube and Facebook gained several million views.
At what point did you feel that you are ready to share with your audience, that you are ready to involve theremin in your professional scene? Did you have doubts or it was love at first sight and no doubt?
Katica Illényi: I was full of doubts when I started to perform with the theremin on stage, but I passionately wanted to introduce my audience to this amazing instrument. Although I knew I still needed more practice, I couldn’t help myself. I knew I was not 100% ready, but I could not hold myself back because I so much wanted to play it on stage.
In Hungary, no one plays or teaches the theremin, so I had no teacher and was helpless. I remember after I bought the theremin and it arrived, I did not know how to put the device together and I also did not know that a theremin needs about a half an hour to warm up. There were a lot of things that I had to experience and discover for myself.
I didn’t know not only about the finger positions but also about how to tune a theremin.
At first, I decided not to think too much about the techniques. I just wanted to make music, to play music, and to entertain myself. So, my method, which I’d recommend to anyone, was simple: I listened to the greatest opera singers and started to imitate them on the theremin. I did not care at all whether I was playing with a good technique or not. The only thing that mattered was MUSIC! I didn‘t finish practicing till I heard my music start to sound like a real singer. However every day, I sat down to play it, and every day my playing improved I knew that it I would benefit me if I could find somebody from whom I could learn certain technical things.
If you go on YouTube, listen to me playing O mio Babbino Caro and Once Upon a Time in the West. Those pieces were from one of my first concerts using the theremin. You can see that I didn’t move my fingers on my right hand. I had no idea about the finger positions. The way I played was similar to using only one finger to play on a piano.
Later I contacted Carolina Eyck, and I visited her in Germany for a private lesson. She and Thierry Frenkel taught me the fundamentals.
Masha Theremin: When we characterize a particular performing technique, we usually mean a whole set of factors, not just fingering. Theremin is a monophonic instrument and this always differents theremin significantly from the piano, which is tempered and polyphonic,so you do not need to find note on piano – it is already prepared. Therefore, in my opinion, the comparison of theremin and piano is incorrect. Most often, theremin is compared with fretless instruments – cello, violin.
What could you say, as a professional violinist, about the similarities and differences between violin and theremin? Is the theremin educational process similar to these musical instruments? Did your professional violin and voice experience help or hinder you in your theremin start?
Katica Illényi: Although the technique of violin playing is not at all similar to that of the theremin, it was a huge help that the theremin was not my first instrument. On the theremin I do everything differently than on the violin.
However, musically, my knowledge of the violin has helped me greatly. I can only express my feelings through the theremin in the same was as I do on the violin, or if I were to sing. I respect Clara Rockmore’s art and style very much, and she was also a violinist. When she plays, I can tell that she thinks the same way.
Masha Theremin: Theremin still remains to be a complex and experimental musical instrument – in the sense that today there are no the ideal and universal educational theremin standards in Europe for example. You believed in Сarolina’s method, you were inspired by the magic module of Thierry, and I can understand you as a person who is always open to something new.
But it is also true that the highest number of views of your theremin videos on You Tube was at the very moment when you were working on your own technique and your own musical approach. Can we say now that you are working on the Carolina technique? How many lessons did you need to take from Carolina in order to master her method and technique? Are you continuing classes with Carolina now?
Katica Illényi: I learned the basics of the technique and the positions of the right hand from Carolina Eyck. In addition, I read the methodological book of Clara Rockmore, which contrasts from Carolina Eyck’s technique.
Over the years, I have noticed that in my playing, I incorporate these two
methods and also add in my individual solutions as well. I believe that everyone must find a unique and comfortable technique that fits to their own hands. If I think back, perhaps I can count how many theremin lessons I have taken my whole life. About 20-25 – which meant four trips to France, Germany and Switzerland to weekend theremin workshops.
This was sufficient for me to find answers to all of my questions. From that point on, I knew that it was up to me to practice and improve to achieve my goals.
Masha Theremin: Continuing the conversation about performing techniques, I should note that all the basic principles of the theremin playing techniques were formulated by Lev Theremin (the first performer and teacher) and his students (primarily, of course, Clara Rockmore and Konstantin Kovalsky). At the same time, Clara is still the only theremin virtuoso and only her technique was able to provide an obvious virtuoso level of performance. Today, there are many variations on the techniques of Clara Rockmore, Lev Theremin and Konstantin Kovalsky.
The most famous modern Western performing techniques are more oriented towards searching in contemporary art and electronic music, rather than maintaining or developing a high performing level of the past. How do you see yourself in this slightly chaotic theremin space? Do you form your own technique, your own approach? Which way would you like to expand the repertoire and sound of your theremin? Are there any problems in working with modern theremin?
Katica Illényi: Yes, I play with a unique technique that is suited to my hands, based on Carolina Eyck’s technique with some differences. I am using Clara Rockmore’s types of smaller movements more and more, as I find them very reliable. I use my arm to slide instead of opening the palm to reach the high note. This is quite similar to violin technique as well. We also slide to high notes on the violin. I have just realized this and am happy that there is something on the theremin that works similarly to the violin. I am a classical musician; therefore, my choice of repertoire is always closer to the classics. I do not like modern contemporary music, I don’t understand it. It doesn’t move emotions in me. However, I like fun music, popular hits, film music and all demanding music. However, there is one point that is very important to me and every fellow thereminist. It would be great if a high quality, concert theremin could be invented. An instrument on which we can express ourselves in a way many of us are capable of, but due to the technical limitations of the theremin, it is not possible. Unfortunately this problem has not been solved yet, much to my disappointment.
Masha Theremin: I think that it is a big problem that few classical professional musicians come to the theremin, so assessment criterion and requirements for the theremin opportunities are often very low. I know only two or three people who raised the issue of the exclusive professional theremin. The level of a musician and an engineer will ultimately determine the final quality of theremin art and, in fact, there are few people, who seriously believe that theremin doesn’t let them reveal their music – I noticed that as usual thereminists with higher musical education are not satisfied by their theremin. So, theremin itself in nowadays is often more mass product then exclusive high art, so it the really hard battle in theremin for musicians of high level. What do you think – will someone in the future take into account the interests of several thereminists and make them theremin of their dreams? Is this a personal problem for every theremin performer or does it ultimately concern everyone, including listeners? Do you think that this problem affects the development of theremin art??
Katica Illényi:Of course, this problem affects the development of theremin art and everything is true that you claimed here. As far as I know, we have good hopes because Thierry Frenkel whom we just call the “Theremengineer” has been planning to develop a brand new concert theremin that would be fantastic for all of us, theremin lovers.
Masha Theremin:Katica, I noticed that you work with theremin very naturally, organically, without epatage. Do you think that theremin requires some special, specially written music or there is already a lot of talented and ingenious music that can and should be performed at theremin?
Katica Illényi: I think both make sense. Since the theremin has its limits, we use it for slower pieces. Maybe we thereminists could inspire composers and ask them to compose new musical pieces for the theremin. Theremin needs a bigger repertoire. Until we get those new musical tunes, we still have a huge choice and a wide variety of beautiful classical and romantic pieces as well as music from other genres to play.
Masha Theremin:Katiсa, the quarantine is ending . could you please share with us your plans for the coming year, maybe you are planning some kind of tour? I understand that in this situation it’s still difficult to plan and most musicians would like to return their plans for the concerts that were so abruptly interrupted by quarantine. At the same time, it seems to me that you are always a very optimistic person and looking forward in the optimistic way. Would you please tell us about this.
Katica Illényi: It was shocking facing the fact that all the performances and tours were canceled a few months ago, and I didn’t know when it will be possible to perform again.
Despite the difficult period, I discovered many new things about myself and my environment. This situation has taught us to live a little simpler, to be able to solve a lot of things on our own, to calm down and simplify so much that we nearly didn’t spend money except for buying anything to eat. Nevertheless, it was good to see how people came together, nurturing, fighting and healing, helping each other often even endangering themselves. After all, in that big trouble, some superhuman miracle was born which proved that we have some kind of special empathy for each other. In an emergency, you can really see very well what people have inside. It awakens goodness that strengthens us, and of course, also you can see evil in the same way, it was very interesting to see this…
I personally do not waste time on negative things and I was happy to learn and practice new things and also to see how quickly people have developed during this period: as school children have succeded how to learn online and how artists played music from their home for the world in the same way. Coaches trained through the internet and we could attend yoga classes in a similar way.
People were happy to give of their own, and very often without financial expectations.Miraculous things were born! People found the way to each other. Yes, we have learned to give each other and we learned how to love remotely! There is one thing, however, that has changed and will always remain in my mind: the realization that anything can happen at any time. Overnight and you can nothing to do against it.I realized how vulnerable my professional life is. The life that I had lived before the virus. After all, everything was over from one moment to the next. I lost everything in my conventional musical life also the joy of going up on stage sharing music and experience how the audience is rejoicing and applauding, and now this was the last thing that anyone would have interested in this trouble that was happening in the whole world. So many times I’ve been grateful on stage and said a short pray between two phrases, “THANK YOU,” and I think that NOW I can only fully experience what gratitude means when life will slowly return to normal again. Will it return in normal again?
In the quarantine-time, I was planting flowers in the garden, cooked every day, and practiced a lot. I learned new musical pieces and took part in online dance training every weekday (thanks for the Budapest Dance Theater) I think this period was a preparation time for artists. We retreated into the background and prepared. Yes, I kept preparing and learning during this long quarantine time, and eventually, I put together a new repertoire principally for the violin (but also a few pieces for the theremin) that consist of many beautiful romantic compositions. In the last 5 months music could be heard only at home and only my flowers and the birds could listen to it…
Masha Theremin :It would be also very interesting to know if you plan to create your own theremin school in Hungary where you would teach with your personal musical and theremin approach?
Katica Illényi: No, I don’t think that I would create a theremin school in Hungary. People do not play the theremin here. Believe it or not, but nobody. One musician called me a few weeks ago and I gave her a private lesson. But that’s all. Theremin does not have a tradition here. Not yet! When I began to play theremin one of my biggest goals was to make people familiar with this musical instrument here in Hungary and I think that I succeeded because any time I get a new invitation, concert organizers always ask me to play the theremin too. So, at least people already know what a theremin is. Maybe we need a few more years till it will become more familiar here. For now, the most important thing is that the audience loves it and people can’t wait for trying it out on stage since that is always a part of the theremin presentation during my concerts.
Photo: Katica Illényi official