LA Phil Blog

The Theremin

The Theremin

Joanne Pearce Martin and Stacy Wetzel in a London taxi on the way to a rehearsalFresh off the bus from Heathrow, and after a quick splash of water on our faces at the hotel (our suitcases hadn't been delivered yet!), a small group of us met back in the lobby to start our adventure. The brave ones: violinists Martin Chalifour, Mitch Newman, Ingrid Chun, and Lawrence Gamma, cellist Danny Rothmuller, and myself. Never mind that we were all starving; the first objective was to get ourselves to North London as quickly and economically as possible. (This is London, after all, where a single ride on the Tube is four POUNDS!) Once we were in the vicinity of the jazz club, then we could quickly grab something to eat, we hoped.

Fast forward to a group of jet-lagged musicians in the Tube station, trying to figure out the best way to do this — eventually, we all bought our "Oyster" cards — a nifty card you can top off at any time, which gets you multiple Tube and bus rides for a fraction of the "single ride" costs.

A quick trip on the Tube was followed by a five-minute ride on a double-decker bus (ladies and gents, can you spot the American tourists — oh yes, they must be the ones running up and down the steps!). By the way, it's quite difficult getting up and down those steps while the bus is lurching away in heavy London traffic — it seemed so much easier when I was 9 years old).

A short walk through the streets of north London, a turn of a few corners, and we were suddenly faced with a wide open space — almost like a small Italian piazza — silent and dark — and there was a slight chill in the air. The Vortex Jazz Club stood like a beacon, with its glass windows glowing from its own green and blue neon. We could see through the windows that the action was UPSTAIRS, so that's where we headed.

At the top of the stairs, we went through the doorway and were instantly transported into another world — a warm, dark room, with a distinctively "jazzy" vibe. It reminded me of the places I used to go when I lived in New York, but those were full of smoke. There were about 10 or 12 very small tables, and only about half of them were full — the rest of the folks were either at the bar in the corner of the room, or just standing around. There was definitely a feeling of anticipation in the air. A small stage held a grand piano, a drum set, and smack dab in the middle, the instrument which was the VERY REASON for this quest of ours: the Theremin!

The "WHAT"??????, you might say. Well, I need to backtrack for just a moment: back in May of this year, during our two week "Shadow of Stalin" series at Disney Hall, we performed an obscure Russian piece which called for a Theremin player. A local Angeleno named Charles Lester came in and played with us. I already knew about this fascinating instrument, but had never had a chance to try playing one, or even see one in person.

The Theremin was invented in the 1920s by a Russian gentleman named Leon Theremin — it is considered the world's first electronic instrument. It basically consists of a box containing circuitry, two antennas (one vertical and one "looped" horizontal), and a speaker. These 2 antennas have a magnetic field around them, so when a player steps up to it to play, a "hum" plays over the speaker. When the player subtly moves his or her hands around in the proximity of the Theremin, the pitch of the hum changes, as well as the volume. One of the most incredible (and difficult!) aspects of this instrument is the fact that one NEVER TOUCHES it to play it! It's all about coordinating the movements of the hands IN THE VICINITY of the Theremin. (One hand controls pitch with the vertical antenna, the other controls volume and articulation with the horizontal.)

Pamelia Kurstin, the young woman whom we came to hear tonight, is one of the most highly regarded players of the Theremin today — believe me, very few people have the patience and the ear to learn to play it well. There is a real "cult" following for the Theremin, but it's certainly out there (in more ways than one!).

The show began almost 45 minutes later than advertised (!), but that gave most of us a chance to run downstairs and munch on some very interesting and spicy Caribbean food at a small stand next to the club. (I love big cities!)

By the time Pamelia began her first solo set, the place was jammed — it was standing room only. From her first notes, even in a short warm-up, she held us captive. (She even begged everyone not to be so quiet as she warmed up!) But can you blame us?!? The experience of hearing a Theremin played, and played WELL, is quite arresting. She performed a series of improvisations in which she utilized her set-up of electronic pedals, which were connected to the Theremin. This enabled her to "loop" phrases, allowing her to play along with herself in multiple layered tracks. She certainly achieved some FASCINATING effects — the range of timbres and pitches and moods she was able to create was absolutely mind-boggling. I sat there wondering what Mr. Theremin would say today if he could hear this, much like how I often wonder what Mozart could have done with a great MIDI-synthesizer set-up! A few of us remarked that Esa-Pekka would have loved this — if the timing were better, I'm sure we could have probably figured out a way to include him.

After the first set was over, Pamelia took a break, and we all met with her. She was thrilled that LA Phil members would come to her show! She knew that we were going to be there, because I had been touch with her via email during the past week. She has agreed to give me some lessons when she is in Los Angeles, where she has some family. (Did I forget to mention that my wonderful husband Gavin secretly arranged to BUY me one of these things over the summer?!) The problem with me is that once I'm interested in something, I get a bit obsessive — I guess I couldn't stop talking about the Theremin back in May, and by July, we had one sitting in our living room!)

Anyway, Pamelia was a delight to meet in person. She had many interesting things to say about her experiences in music (not just on the Theremin, but on violin, viola, cello, and piano). It gave us some real insight to her as a person, as well as a musician.

For her second set, Pamelia was joined onstage by a pianist, a saxophonist, and a drummer for some free improvisation — and FREE IT WAS!... the kind of freedom that can stir up feelings of envy in a classical musician? although thanks to a lot of contemporary music, we do get to sample that freedom at times. I should mention that at this point, our violinist colleague Guido Lamell was able to join us, after having dinner with his family — thanks for making the trek out by yourself, Guido!

All in all, this was a truly unique musical experience, and I'm glad my colleagues and I were able to stretch ourselves mentally and physically to make it — it was certainly well worth it. What a fabulous way to start sampling what London has to offer!