Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Theremin Cellos

One of the things I didn't get to mention in my review of the Varese concerts at Lincoln Center is the use of two Theremin cellos in "Ecuatorial" (based on texts from the Mayan book of the dead). These appear to be of Floyd Engels' manufacture. Engels builds recreations of the original Leon Theremin-built instruments.

Theremin designed the instrument to Varese's specifications, specifically for this piece. He built a number of these instruments but all but two were lost or destroyed. The two remaining were broken for years, leaving Engels had to "reverse engineer" the instruments to reconstruct them. The Engels instruments were debuted in a performance of "Ecuatorial" at June in Buffalo in October of 2002.

Basically, the instrument is a Theremin triggered from a contact strip along a fretboard rather than from an antenna. The left hand fingers pitches like a cellist stopping the strings. The right hand (the bow hand for a cellist) controls a volume lever.

As you can see from the photo, the Theremin cello look like "Warehouse 13" artifact--a rockin' retro chic in black and bronze and knobs, complete with its own fabric-and-screen-covered amplifier/speaker box. For Varese's piece, each one sounded like a straight-up Theremin--kind of crappy, in other words, but entirely appropriate to the music. Obviously, being an electronic instrument, it would be appropriate to filter the sound through any kind of effects, giving the instrument a flexibility similar to an electric guitar. That is harder to do than it appears however because the Theremin cello's sound-producing mechanism is wired into its amplifier/speaker box. The instrument itself sends a signal but doesn't produce any sound. Even without this limitation, most Theremin players I've heard stick close to the original sound (think the sound used in the Beach Boys "Good Vibrations," although I think that was a related instrument, not a true Theremin). Why, I'm not sure. I think they think it's beautiful. Some days I think they're right.

Common wisdom is that Theremin is an instrument who's time has come and gone and that now it is mainly a historical instrument. But there a lot of Theremin players out there that would disagree with that, who see it as a vital, evolving instrument with a growing repertoire. Hopefully the exposure at Lincoln Center will spark a renewed interest Theremin's inventions and some new music for them.

Meantime, there's a wonderful (and sad) documentary on Leon Theremin that I can recommend to everyone, called "Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey", (1994, directed by Steven M. Martin). Great film.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Dread Glock Ascending

Last night, heading out of Lincoln Center in search of a bite to eat, my daughter and I were struck by a wild music bouncing around in the air outside Alice Tully Hall. Got up closer to the corner and we saw him: a gentleman of about my age (50-something) in graying dreadlocks, playing the hell out of a glockenspiel. It was something out of the weird world of free jazz, a kind of pseudo-major-scale bebop, with stuttering rhythms like the uneven stop and start and shuffling feet and murmur of the small crowd flowing around him.

It sounded like a tribute to Varese, like a flower on his tomb. We had just come out of the "Varese: (R)evolution" concert at Avery Fisher and Varese posters were draped all over the place at Lincoln Center, particularly at Alice Tully, where Part One of the Varese concerts had been the night before. With that exquisitely monstrous music still in our heads--huge full orchestra, a dozen percussionists--here comes this street performer, testifying to the same powerful vision of beauty one note at a time. Maybe he had been there too, at the concert. Or maybe he just knew--his hand on a lever of truth. The way I knew before I ever walked into the concert hall (where I had it all, all my faith reaffirmed). The way hopefully my daughter will know now for the rest of her life. And he wanted to share it.

Reminded me of the old days, before New York became a shopping mall. Something found on the street, letting the tinkling craziness wash over us and the whole city and the hot night. Oddly beautiful moments that come with no packaging, no explanation, no currency equivalent, and that you know you'll remember for the rest of your life.


Monday, July 19, 2010

Varese Tonight

Going tonight and tomorrow to hear the Varese (R)evolution pair of concerts at Lincoln Center, reviewing them together (I hope for the Asbury Park Press, although whether they'll be able to run it remains to be seen).

There was a nice tribute piece on Varese in the New York Times, singling out Ionisation as one of his most significant works.

Part 1 of the event, tonight, is at Alice Tully Hall featuring the International Contemporary Ensemble and So Percussion. Part 2 tomorrow night features the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall.

I'm in love with the modernism of the era that Varese represents, the 1920s in the U.S. There was an incredible inventiveness and richness to the ideas that were circulating in the "dissonant" school, including the work of Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, Dane Rudhyar, George Antheil, Henry Cowell and many others. Inspired by the groundbreaking work of Stravinsky and the improvisatory style of Leo Ornstein, this stuff had little or nothing to do with Schoenberg's 12-tone technique that later overwhelmed the cultural notion of atonality and the use of dissonance. Varese was a spiritual leader of this movement, refusing to compromise his aesthetic even when the conservativism fostered by the Great Depression eliminated the opportunity for performances.

As a side note, it is striking to me how American Varese is. An immigrant and an iconoclast, he inspired a generation of composers all over the world, but American composers in particular. Frank Zappa is among the most notable, corresponding with Varese about the time the older composer was writing Deserts. Zappa was himself an iconoclast and a loner, like Varese. And he was also the son of immigrant parents and strongly aware of that fact.

That notion of displacement expressed through dissonance and experimentation, and of a unity, a translatability between the cultures of the world, has something to do with the styles that emerged in American life in the 20th Century. It fits in with psychological and cultural displacement found in the music of Charles Ives, considered the founder of whatever an American style is.

But I'm rambling now. More on all that some other time, I suppose. I have work to do if I'm going to make the train to New York later.


Saturday, July 10, 2010

Don Giovanni

I'm excited to be going to the Opera New Jersey performance of Don Giovanni tomorrow afternoon with my daughter. Andrew Garland, pictured in the photo at left, will be playing the title role. I'll be the gray longhair with the pouting teenager on my arm. But, come to think of it, in a town like Princeton, that may not be enough information to single me out.

The opera is one of Mozart's finest, of the trio of collaborations with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte that also includes "Le Nozze di Figaro" and "Cosi fan tutti". These are all mature Mozart, setting stories told cleverly and often brilliantly by Da Ponte. "Don Giovanni" is the Don Juan legend, the story of a libertine nobleman who seduces scores of women and finally meets his fate at the hands of a murdered father's graveyard statue.

Da Ponte's colorful life brought him to the U.S., where he made many important contributions to the fledgling national culture, primarily through his expertise in Italian literature. (He was apparently the first to teach the works of Dante in America, among other things.)

But he is still remembered first and foremost as Mozart's librettist. He liked the notoriety and played it up, even crediting himself with discovering Mozart and introducing the composer to the world's audiences.

"I can never remember without exultation and complacency," he once wrote, "that it was to my perseverance and firmness alone that Europe and the world in great part owe the exquisite vocal compositions of the admirable genius."

Well, they are three really terrific operas, that much is certainly true. Mozart had written well over a dozen others before his collaborations with Da Ponte and none of them really captured the public's imagination in the same way.

So I'm excited to be going to see what promises to be a good production. Showtime is 2 p.m. at Princeton's McCarter Theatre, main stage.


Friday, July 9, 2010


Heading out this morning to a meeting with the Rider Sustainability Across Curriculum group at the Lawrenceville campus. Last fall I started teaching a Freshman Seminar at The College of New Jersey then titled Music and Environment (now Music and the Natural World). The idea was to increase sensitivity to environmental concerns by showing the intricate relationship of this aspect of human culture to our natural surroundings.

The idea for the course came out directly out of a discussion on sustainability and music theory curriculum on a Society of Music Theory list. The very beginnings of this discussion on SMT raised the hackles of many theorists and I certainly don't blame them.

As all music majors know, music theory courses are routinely jammed with information. They are notorious for shoe-horning in every possible technique of historical Western music theory plus a handful of ethnomusicological bric-a-brac. On top of that they also usually entail some ear-training, sight-singing and often a piano keyboard mechanics component. While they may have become more condensed, music theory has been taught more or less the same way for hundreds of years.

So the very thought that you could rejigger the music theory curriculum to fit into an all-of-a-sudden academic trend like sustainability just seemed a bit outrageous. Further, the topic itself seems pretty removed from any direct connection with sustainability--what is there to be sustained in music? How does music theory affect the physical environment and how can recycling or solar energy improve it?

I point all this out because the discussion actually did become useful, once we began to brainstorm and talk about intersections of environmentalism and music that interested us. And the course, so far, has turned out to be one of the most exciting that I've taught.