By Alli Katz
Us Conductors is out via Tin House Books. Divine Hand Ensemble plays July 12, 7pm at Ardmore Music Hall.
Before samplers, Moog synths, and guitars with tungsten pickups, there was the theremin: a weird, two-antennaed box that operates using electrical fields. According to Mano Divina, theremin player for the Divine Hand Ensemble, it is the world’s most difficult instrument to play.
On June 25th, PhilaMoca hosted a celebration of the theremin, inviting Sean Michaels, author of a fictionalized biography of Lev Sergeyevich Termen (or, to Americans, Leon Theremin) entitled Us Conductors, and Mano Divina for a reading, lecture, and a screening of the documentary 21st Century Music, which covers Divine Hand Ensemble’s first year.
In the recently released Us Conductors (2014, Tin House Books), an invented biography of an inventor, we’re grounded loosely in a series of facts. Termen/Theremin was, like Tesla and Edison, a brilliant electrical engineer. He invented a burglar alarm, a drum machine, various types of closed circuit televisions, a metal detector, hidden microphones, and the eponymous theremin , which came from his work with proximity sensors. But Michaels’ book, while ostensibly based on Theremin’s love for his instrument’s greatest player (Clara Rockmore nee Reisenberg), is also about the expansiveness of scientific discovery — the manipulations of invisible things, like magnetic fields and radiowaves, controlling us. Pulling music from the ether and falling in love are parallel experiences. Just as the actual production of music from the theremin is unbelievably challenging, so, it seems, is unrequited love.
Sean Michaels, founder of the music blog Said the Gramophone, is a smooth and gifted writer. His prose follows the flow of the history of the U.S.S.R. in the first half of the century, from the brightness of the inventor’s meeting with Lenin to espionage and gulags in the age of Stalin. We have the loose, lyrical prose filled with wonder that chronicles Theremin in America, and the colder (both literally and figuratively) writing of experiences in Siberia.
But the heart of the story is less romance and intrigue than this very, very strange instrument.
PhilaMoca’s success in this event was providing not one, but two narratives to an instrument that has been relegated for so long to robot sounds and the analog retrofuturism of the 1950s: the story of its strange inventor, and a look at how the instrument still, through Divine Hand Ensemble, captures the imagination. In Divina’s version of the story, after Theremin returned to (or, really, disappeared within) the USSR, the 500 or so theremins in the U.S. eventually fell into disrepair. Rockmore remained one of the few capable players, but she was not enough to keep the instrument from becoming a novelty instrument, which turned into an avant-gardist tool, particularly popular for composers looking for microtones.psych-pop acts – famously exemplified in the song Good Vibrations, which uses a theremin-esque instrument invented by trombonist Paul Tanner.
Divina, an evangelist for the instrument who encouraged the entire audience to try the theremin during the lecture, positions himself against experimental pieces, imagining the theremin as Theremin did: an electronic tool toward a more traditional concept of beauty, a way to vibrate air as a violinist vibrates string. Divine Hand’s works are almost exclusively opera – the Divina’s theremin plays the coloratura. It is an interesting choice for an instrument that was, in some sense, created in an attempt to radicalize music, but it is also fitting. The theremin, like the human voice, cannot play chords, but both are able to hit any note within their playable range.
The sounds that the theremin makes are more haunting than almost any voice, as they are literally plucked out of thin air, unrelated to the tactile movements and actual vibrations we are accustomed to from even our electronic instruments. By offering both an invented narrative from Us Conductors and the reportage of Divina (and documentary 21st Century Music), the instrument, and it’s strange and mysterious inventor, were grounded.
Alli Katz is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia. Follow her on twitter @allikatz, or find her on her website lookhowhappyiam.com