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Lydia Kavina - Lydia Kavina: Spellbound! Original Works For Theremin

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Artist: Lydia Kavina

Album: Lydia Kavina: Spellbound! Original Works For Theremin

Label: Mode

Review date: Sep. 24, 2008

There’s plenty of information available about the fascinating circumstances surrounding the invention of the theremin. The tale of the instrument’s inventor and namesake Leon Theremin has been discussed in Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, a documentary that details his odd relationship with the Soviet Union and his ties to the security industry. It doesn’t take watching the documentary, though, to know that the theremin is an instrument whose familiar whine worked its way into the popular mindset through its use in classic sci-fi soundtracks, found itself as a psych-rock centerpiece in the baroque pop of the Beach Boys, and has remained a staple of a few New Music performers, who keep alive the intent of the instrument as a unique orchestral voice.

Lydia Kavina, while her name may not be as immediately recognizable as original theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore, is the heir to Rockmore’s idiosyncratic place in New Music history, and has a direct tie to Leon Theremin’s legacy. Kavina is the Russian inventor’s niece and the last protégé he took under his wing before his death in 1993. On Spellbound, Kavina offers her skills to perform a range of pieces that run the gamut of a few different styles in which the theremin has reared its distinct shriek since its invention.

Spellbound’s trip through thereminic history begins with a fairly recent ode to its sci-fi past in a performance of Howard Shore’s “Suite from ‘Ed Wood.’” Familiar enough to anyone who’s seen the Tim Burton film, the track is composer Shore’s attempt to implement atmosphere the way the low-budget auteur might have liked to, if he’d ever made enough money to get his hands on one of these instruments. Here, the campy sci-fi side of the theremin is seen at its apex, particularly because the concept of the piece is to create an atmosphere for a film that treated Wood as a tragic camp hero.

The tracks by Percy Grainger that follow explore the theremin’s less popular, more experimental side. Rather than treating the instrument as something reserved for spaced-out soloing, his pieces, all written in the 1930s, use the theremin as their foundation. “Free Music No. 1 & 2” and “Beatless Music” employ between four and six theremins and no other instrumentation. Though sometimes the effusive surges of the instruments can sound slightly empty, these early compositions show the hope of new musical aesthetics that the theremin offered composers at the time. And, at points, the sweeping confluences of epileptic undulations found in these tracks make for a fascinating listen.

Olga Neuwirth’s “Suite aus Baehlamm’s Fest” is a creaking, teutonically dissonant piece from 1999 to which the theremin adds a strange, spacey warble amid minimal, echoing orchestration. Throughout its eight parts, the song goes from explosive to exploratory, murderously dramatic to unsettlingly quiet. It finishes out with the theremin offering a delicate whine over vaudevillian playfulness, teasing out the instrument’s subtlety. If the earlier pieces on Spellbound highlight how different the theremin’s idiosyncrasies, this one shows it working seamlessly in concert with other orchestral instruments.

Pieces by Christian Wolff and Miklos Rosza similarly find the theremin’s use continuing to extended into the world of experimental composership. If nothing on Spellbound breaks new conceptual ground, it’s still a pleasant ode to the simple yet multi-faceted instrument, the composers who continue to write songs for it, and the virtuosos who continue to play it.

By Matthew A. Stern

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