„The theremin is a mystical instrument”

Katica Illényi, who is a singer and Liszt Ferenc prize winner violinist, found a video six years ago. This special electrical instrument, which was named after Léon Theremin, immediately captivated her. Since then, she became an active member of the Theremin community, she is working on her new album and she is also preparing for the presentation of the instrument, which is going to be in Vietnam.

Firstly, Katica Illényi was inspired by Clara Rockmore Saint Saens, mainly The Swan theremin performance.
The interview reveals how she trained herself and how she found other theremin artists, who are living in different parts of the world, including the inventor’s niece.
Léon Theremin was a Russian scientist and physicist. He discovered this musical instrument. He was at the White House and at the Siberian death camps as well. He was a professional musician and he made music from everything.
The artist is working on her first album, which is going to be unique in the world.

You took your first lessons from a German born theremin artist, Carolina Eyck. How did you find this instrument?
In Hungary, I am the only person who plays on this musical instrument on stage, so that is why I am studying in an international environment. Everything began with Clara Rockmore’s recording, Saint Saens: The Swan performance. I saw this performance accidentally. Firstly, she inspired me. At the beginning, I was learning on my own, I have found many things, then I realized that I wanted to learn this more seriously. The theremin is an electrical musical instrument, it operates according to the laws of physics. While playing on this musical instrument, an electromagnetic field is generated between the two antennas. The sounds are located in this empty space. When I move my hands in this electromagnetic field, the pitch and the volume will change. I have noticed that I became more and more curious and I wanted to learn more things about this instrument. Although there are a few people in the world, who can play on this musical instrument, I began to search videos on YouTube, then I found Carolina Eyck German artist and I wrote her. At that time, she was preparing for a concert in a church and I asked whether she would play in front of people, so that I can see her hands. She was immediately helpful and she offered me two tickets. Then I took a private lesson from her in Leipzig. During this lesson, I have learnt a lot, we discussed mainly the instrument’s technical structure. After that she told me that there was going to be a course in France and she recommended me to take part in this course. We spent four wonderful days there, I wanted to seize every opportunity to learn. It was a wonderful feeling to be there and to meet people, who I had previously seen on YouTube.



How many people can play on this musical instrument?
There are only few people who play on this musical instrument at an artistic level and who do concerts regularly in the world. It’s a very small and closed community, but it is extremely cohesive. We are living at different parts of the world, but we keep in touch on the Internet and the Skype theremin lessons are also common. It is very difficult to accurately touch the sounds, because we do not see their places, because we are playing in the air. This is the only instrument in the world that the person, who plays on it, never touches. Recently, I was in the Fábry Tv Show and the presentation of this musical instrument was very successful. After the show, I wrote a description on our theremin site how I practiced for the show and what I had to pay attention during the performance. A couple of months later, I was in Lausanne, where I met a lady and she thanked the description and she said that I helped her a lot with this. I am pleased that more and more enthusiastic young people want to join the courses.

What should somebody know about the history of the theremin?
The instrument got its name after the inventor, Léon Theremin, who was a Russian scientist and physicist and who originally began his career as a cellist. Without any exaggeration, the history of the theremin fits into a Hollywood film story. The instrument was discovered in 1920 quite accidentally, while he was trying to install an alarm system in the house. The structure is based on the following principle: when we enter in the electromagnetic field, we suddenly hear a sound and as we get closer to the building the sound is going to be higher. The inventor’s aim was to build a musical instrument which works with the same rules. The theremin is much like a box, both sides have an antenna. Between these, an electromagnetic field is created and I can control the pitch with my hands. When Lenin heard Léon Theremin playing on his invention in 1920, he asked the inventor to create one for him at that night. At that time, there was no possibility to travel so freely, but the Soviet secret service let Theremin do concert everywhere in the world, in return they asked him to report things. Thus Léon Theremin and his instrument quickly entered in the America’s high society circle. The artist also played in the White House, he met famous people and he personally knew Einstein and Charlie Chaplin. He had a huge success everywhere, while he had also become a professional spy. Meanwhile, he fell in love with an African-American ballet dancer, but the Soviets did not like this and they did not give the permission to marry. Despite this, he married to this lady, so the Soviet Secret Service had immediately kidnapped him and he was taken to a Siberian death camp. Theremin escaped alive, his talent was also used there: while he was working in the mine, he was also entrusted with the development of various listening equipments. He was able to make special things, like he could manipulate the genes of the ornamental plants in the US embassy building so that he made out of this a listening device which brought many benefits to the management. Stalin pardoned him and after three years he was released from the death camp. He got an apartment and he could live with his wife, but she had to write reports about him every day. They had two children. He was not allowed to deal with music, but he did not give up, secretly he made an electric cello out of a broom stick. He was an obsessed musician, he wanted to make music from everything. Fortunately, his wife did not report everything. A movie can be made about his life.

Who did the art of the theremin take on?I was quickly captivated by the history of the theremin, so I searched for many things. I have found László Najmányi’s book, who wrote about Theremin’s life. It is interesting that he could hear the inventor playing on this instrument in his last year in a New York theremin event. László Najmányi was so impressed by the concert that he searched for the scientist’s biographies for ten years, he even went to Siberia to see where the scientist was imprisoned. After I read the first volume, I was under the influence of this for several days. And this is only one-tenth of his rich life. For example, he fell in love with Clara Rockmore, who was originally a violinist and he taught her to play on this special mystical instrument. She took the reputation of his instrument and she was the most famous theremin artist and the biggest idol for everyone.

Within a few years, you became a respected member of the theremin community and now you are making your first theremin album.
I found the theremin six years ago and with continuous practicing I reached that now I am accepted among the most well-known artists. I could get the instrument from America. Now my summer revolves around the recordings for the album, which is going to be a Christmas album and it will be released in the autumn ( 2016). Meanwhile, I am also working on another theremin album, where there is going to be film and well-known music adaptations and this is going to be released next year. For example, the Once Upon a Time in the West aria fully returns that this is a real musical instrument. It is very similar to the voice and to the string instruments, so therefore it is evident that I have fallen in love with theremin.

What instrumental skills does this require and what is worth to combine with?
It is good to try something else before this. I play music since the age of three and a half, so everything which belongs to this is natural. But it cannot be learnt from zero, I am sure your theremin works would become better if it’s the second musical instrument you learnt. I have also implemented all my experience that I have acquired previously with the violin. Carolina Eyck, who was originally a violinist, has plenty of students, like Thorwald Jorgensen, who is a Dutch artist, Lydia Kavina, who is a pianist, Pamela Kurstin, who is a jazz bassist. They brought their own strengths. For example, I did not know at the beginning what is the right hand position, for me the clear sounds were the most important. Now looking back, I smile at my own first video recordings that my fists were so pressed during the play. Now I use all my fingers, I realized that I am so much faster.



What special things do you need to pay attention during the performance?
The first and the greatest technical challenge is to have clear sounds. Because this is an electrical instrument and the sounds have to be found in the invisible electromagnetic field, the location of the sounds depends on the size of the concert venue. So the sounds are formed elsewhere and differently in every room. You need to understand physics a little bit, so that someone does not have any unexpected surprises. The location of the speakers and the amplifier are also important.

Last year in Szeged, this year in Budapest, you will host the Swing de Gitanes Israeli orchestra.
It is the miracle of the Internet. They watched my videos on YouTube, and I was invited for a joint performance. They are playing one of my favorite genre, called the gypsy swing style. Of course, I happily said yes, two years ago we had a very successful tour in Israel. When I came home, I decided that I will do my best to invite them. Last year in Szeged and this year we had concerts at the Jewish Summer Festivals. Their families also came, we were walking around a lot, they were very curious about the Hungarian cream cake.

You will represent Hungary in Vietnam.
I will perform with the National Symphony Orchestra in Hanoi and there is going to be another concert in which there will be a piano and a violin in Ho Si Minh City. I will take István Bundzik with me, who is the pianist of the Miskolc Dixieland Band and the head of the jazz-piano department of Miskolc Conservatory. In addition, I have received an invitation and I will do something which I have never done before: in a workshop I will present the theremin in English for music academy students.

What concerts will you have in the near future?
The date may seem far away, but in terms of the preparation, it is really close: 14th of January in the Congress Center I will have a performance where I invited those artists who I admire and whose concerts I always attend, namely Péter Sárik, a jazz pianist, Micheller Myrtill and Hajnal Magyar singers and my brother, Csaba Illényi, violinist will be the guests. The audience love them, but I will be the happiest person, because of our busyness, we can hardly meet. Instead of chatting, we prefer to go to concerts.

What do you do when you are not playing on a musical instrument?
I like sports, I do yoga a lot and I have recently discovered the bodyART sport, which is very similar to yoga, but it is a bit more dynamic. It gives you a very good condition.

Végh Nóra

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