Clip: Electronica From the 1920's, Ready for Sampling
Electronica From the 1920's, Ready for Sampling
By MICHAEL BECKERMAN
Published: August 11, 2005
Not two weeks before the fateful stock market crash of 1929, Joseph Schillinger, newly arrived on these shores from Russia, put the finishing touches on a short concerto with the outré title "First Airphonic Suite." A month later, as the country reeled in the wake of Black Thursday, the work caused a sensation at its New York premiere.
Caramoor International Musical Festival
Lucie Rosen, a Caramoor founder, was also a theremin virtuoso.
The buzz came not from the piece itself - which, perhaps mirroring the composer's migration, begins à la Borodin and ends up like "Rhapsody in Blue" - but from its electrified soloist, Lev Theremin, the inventor and namesake of the featured instrument.
The reviewer for The New York Times, Olin Downes, described the contraption as "a sort of a box on a tripod, with antennae," and so it is today. Theremin, Downes wrote, "moved his hands and fingers in mystic passes in the air, and a tone like a purified and magnified saxophone soared through the atmosphere and through the very loudest fortissimo."
Schillinger's suite will have a rare performance on Saturday night at the Caramoor International Music Festival in Katonah, N.Y., with Michael Barrett conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke's and with Theremin's great-niece, Lydia Kavina, as soloist.
Beginning in the late 1920's, RCA made a major marketing effort to have the American public imagine a theremin in every pot. Out with pianos and organs, which require specialized lessons and practice; now there could be music with a wave of the hand.
At the same time, Schillinger, a notorious polymath, was working on his "System of Musical Composition," published in two giant volumes, an approach that would hold figures like George Gershwin, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman in its mathematical thrall for years. The system is now largely forgotten. (Henry Cowell loved it; Elliott Carter hated it.)
It is easy to see the theremin as a relic caught in an evolutionary time warp: at best a curiosity, at worst a kind of monstrosity with a hideous sound, fit only for the grade B science-fiction films that were its stock in trade in the 1950's and the occasional pop cameo in a tune like "Good Vibrations."
So is the "First Airphonic Suite" just a crackpot piece by a crackpot composer for a crackpot instrument? Matters are not so simple.
In William James's famous formulation, "a new idea is first condemned as ridiculous and then dismissed as trivial, until finally, it becomes what everybody knows." To evaluate historical contributions, we must know exactly where we are now, and there is no evidence that we do.
Some, including Robert Moog, the inventor of the Moog Synthesizer, make a persuasive case that Theremin was one of the great figures in the history of music, a powerful inspiration for later developments in electronic and computer-generated sound. And Schillinger's teachings have had an impact on everything from Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" (Audra McDonald will sing excerpts in the concert on Saturday) to Eddie Palmieri's Latin jazz. Both figures were remarkable, complex and indefatigable.
Schillinger had visionary, if somewhat hermetic, theories about the unity of the arts. Along with Theremin, he invented the Rhythmicon, a keyboard offshoot of the theremin. And Schillinger set out to compile a vast collection of études for theremin, complete with recordings for the performer to play along with. He died at 47 in 1943.
Theremin had one of the 20th century's most astonishing careers, wonderfully documented in Albert Glinsky's book "Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage." A kind of phosphorescent Zelig, he demonstrated his instrument for everyone from Lenin (who adored it) to George Bernard Shaw (who said he had heard better noises on a comb covered with tissue paper).
Theremin worked as a Soviet spy in New York while hobnobbing with the upper classes, was imprisoned in the Siberian gulag and later designed ingenious bugs for the KGB. (One was placed in the beak of the eagle in the Great Seal at the United States Embassy in Moscow.) He emerged 15 years ago in his 90's as the grand old man of electronic music to claim awards and honors. This last bit of his career is beautifully recorded in Steven M. Martin's film "Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey." He died at 97 in 1993.
Caramoor is the former estate of Walter and Lucie Rosen, who were Theremin's patrons in New York and the landlords of his 54th Street studio. Lucie Rosen was an early virtuoso on the instrument, and a charming Pre-Raphaelite painting at Caramoor shows her playing the instrument in pastoral splendor. Hearing Schillinger's suite in this setting should conjure up the miraculous contradictions of that world of revolutionary zeal, technical innovation, aristocratic noblesse, progressive thought and political secrets.
But in the end, it is the performance that counts. In certain ways, the theremin differs from other virtuosic instruments. When he first beheld it, the violinist Joseph Szigeti remarked, "A singer is limited by his lung capacity, and a violinist by the length of his bow, but there is no limitation on this instrument." So the powerful high C sharp that Ms. Kavina will hold at the end of the Schillinger suite is in reality no more or less difficult than any other note.
Still, there is more to virtuosity than mere athletics. On hearing Paganini play the violin in 1831, the critic Castil-Blaze observed that "200 years ago he would have been burned as a magician." A century later, The London Daily Chronicle suggested that "if Leo Theremin had lived 500 years ago, he would probably have been burnt as a sorcerer."
And it is true that a performance on the theremin creates an air of magic. To see a theremenist of Ms. Kavina's quality seemingly pluck notes out of the air is one of the great performance experiences available to us: part futuristic prestidigitation, with gestures translating to sound, and part something that the Russian physicist Abram Ioffe, just moments after Theremin had discovered the effect, described as "the lament of Orpheus."