Nahum Mantra is an artist and musician. He lives between London and Mexico City and works in the intersection of the arts and science. Nahum studied at the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the Technological Institute (Tec) of Monterrey and obtained an MA at Goldsmiths University of London, where he graduated with a distinction, supported by the British Council and the BBVA Bancomer bank. His work revolves around topics in science and the intimacy of nature, whilst addressing their relationship to the fantastical and magical realms. He is a founding member of musical ensembles such as the “Goldsmiths Electronic Orchestra” and “Orchestra Elastique”. Since 2007, he has performed and exhibited his artistic work in UK venues including the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), Southbank Centre, Battersea Arts Centre and The Place in London, The Basement in Brighton, and Laboratorio Arte Alameda and the Fonoteca Nacional in Mexico City.
From 2008 to present, he has been an associate artist at The Arts Catalyst, a well-renowned arts and science agency in London. Here, he organises KOSMICA, an international series of galactic gatherings about outer space, arts and culture. Furthermore, he is the coordinator of the Technical Committee for the Cultural Utilisations of Space inside the International Astronautical Federation in Paris. Within the committee, he plans cultural space policies for space agendas at an international level. Morevoer, Nahum has been appointed as one of the curators of the digital arts biennial TransitioMx to be hold in Mexico City in September 2015. In 2014 Nahum was recognised as one of the Young Space Leaders by the International Astronautical Federation for his contributions to outer space activities. Currently he is the director of the first space mission of zero gravity by Mexican artists in collaboration with the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Russia.
What prompted you to play theremin?
I’ve been obsessed with learning as many instruments as humanly possible. It was after attending a concert (Turangalîla by Olivier Messiaen) that I discovered the existence of the Ondes Martenot and I went mad about it. After finding out that it would take about a couple of years to get it if lucky and a stratospheric sum of money I started doing some research about similarish instruments. After a few searches I found it: a theremin.
What were your first feelings when you heard the sounds of theremin and where did it happen?
I remember when I unboxed my brand new theremin – there was something special in the air, I knew I was in front of something extraordinary. I plugged it in, gave it a go and then I put it back on the box where it stayed over a year. For some reason it didn’t get me on the first time I played it. I was keener to play the viola, or the guitar, or the piano, or the bass… but not the theremin.
A year later I moved from Mexico City to London and I actually took with myself my entire collection of musical instruments and a couple of trousers and a jacket, in case it rained. Soon after arriving to the big smoke I joined the Goldsmiths Electronic Orchestra where I was processing my guitar with Max/Msp. On the first public concert I had with this ensemble, I decided to plug my guitar in and why not, my theremin too – just for the looks. When the concert started I played this never-ending guitar drone that lasted for ages and then I gave a glance to that theremin standing somewhere on stage. I decided to walk towards it and I started playing it for the first time in public. True magic happened! I had never felt so connected to an instrument on stage. It was powerful and beautiful. My soul had finally found a voice and it just felt simply right. Since then I always have a theremin with me on stage and inside my luggage.
What is your musical philosophy and what place it occupies a theremin?
My musical philosophy is anything goes. I love music and I love performing it. We are privileged to live in a time where music from all around the world and from all times is within the reach of our ears. I enjoy mixing sounds, styles, and instruments, old and new, to create something that feels appropriate at a given time. Music to me is just sound, it doesn’t have any explicit meaning, that’s its virtue and the reason why it’s universal: people appropriate the sounds within themselves and give them an intimate and personal meaning.
If there’s something I always seek in my music is the spirit of funk. I grew up with funky music and even if I don’t play those funky sounds on the music I play, I definitely look for that spirit. To me this spirit means freedom to say things out loud, to be unique and bold, and not to be afraid of enjoying whilst making some serious statements.
Within these ideas, I have developed a certain way of playing (sometimes smashing) the theremin. Some have called it knocking the air out, the thereseductive style, amongst other names. I rarely play the raw sound of the theremin, instead I heavily process it and I play percussive sounds with it. The theremin can make a great companion to drums. This is something I developed while playing with Orchestra Elastique, an improvisation ensemble based in London and Lisbon.
Prospects for theremin and its place in modern music space – how you see them? For what qualities you value this tool?
It’s challenging to play proper theremin. Youngsters that are into music prefer to press buttons than training minuscular muscle movements through thousands of repetitive exercises over 10 years of hard practice. I can’t see how it could become a mainstream instrument ever. However, its heritage is visible in new music. I like to present the theremin as the godfather of electronic music.
Nevertheless, the theremin will always have a very special place in music. It still amazes people from all around the globe and its magic is unmatchable by any existent or even future instruments. It has a magical fate.
Which manufacturer of theremin do you prefer?
From the very beginning I’ve used Moog theremins, specially the Etherwave. I’m comfortable and happy with Moog – they are sturdy enough.
What you can recommend for beginners thereminists, or those who are just going to start their way of thereminist?
Apart from all the patter I would give to anyone learning a musical instrument, I strongly suggest learning its history. Read all about the life of Lev Theremin, only then you will see it as something much more than an instrument.