Katica Illényi: There is only one guru: practicing!

Katica Illényi is mostly known as a violinist, but besides her dance and singing performances, she can also play on a musical instrument, which no one else can use in the country.

When you hear the theremin for the first time, you will not believe that you are listening to a violin and a singing voice, but you will associate the sound with an electronic musical instrument. The combination of sounds and visuals have a really unusual effect, but this unique, somewhat utopian, „angelic” acoustics really amazes people. I have talked with Katica Illényi about theremin, her enthusiasm and perseverance.

“I have seen a video accidentally about theremin on Youtube a few years ago and I did not know what it was. I saw an elderly lady  - she was the best theremin player Clara Rockmore - who I thought she was singing, but at that age, nobody could sing at such heights as this lady did. Finally, I realized that this is not singing, but it was something completely different kind of vocal training. Then I began to search for videos and descriptions on this special musical instrument. The first video was so impressive that I could not sleep for days, I felt that I had to try this musical instrument out. I have found nothing in Hungary, only an exhibited piece, so I had to order one from America. It took a month to arrive. Well, the waiting time was so nerve-racking…”

Did someone help you at the beginning?

I have learnt to play on theremin from zero, I have learnt it by myself, but I have got one advantage mainly that I was right handed from the beginning. It was as if someone had tried to learn it without any previous musical training.

I tried to play opera arias on this instrument. Then two years later, I have found a German theremin artist, who gave a concert in Leipzig. I got in touch with her and I took some private classes. I could not sleep one week before the meeting, I was so excited … usually children expect something so much. After the class, she told me that there is a theremin course in France every year. Since then, I have participated in 3-4 courses, and I had also private lessons on Skype. I know 5 men who held concerts, but those who play on theremin know each other, because there are only a few people. I cannot talk about this with anyone at home.

You can compare the musical instruments – in relation to the violin, is the theremin easier or more difficult?

A lot of patience is required, there is no orientation between the antenna and the machine which you can rely on whether we are touching it at the right direction. It feels as if there is an invisible string between my body and the antenna and I am trying to play on this. Each of them has its own difficulties, but in a completely different way. You can do a lot of things on violin/theremin technically, but you can reach these with a lot of practice.

My skills improved a lot in these workshops, just because they told me certain things and they showed me things which I could not figure it out by myself. This made me extremely happy, but in the same time, it made me sad, because I realized that here is another hobby, which I need to practice and I also got all the technical skills. After 40 years of playing on violin, I know what real practicing means, which also brings the success. I want to have a whole evening concert only with theremin in 2018. There are only a few people who held theremin concerts (if I know well there are only five people in the world). We have a kind of mission: we want to acquaint as many people as we can with this special instrument. I would like to expand a little the theremin repertoire in the world, so for example, I asked a young composer, Rezső Ott, to write me three movement concerto for theremin.

How did the audience like this new sound after the violin?

At first they did not believe it, they thought that it was playback. In my second concert, I gave the opportunity for anyone to come up on the stage and to try it out. Since then, I always ask someone to come up, because otherwise people do not believe that I am playing on this musical instrument. After that, I got total acceptance and admiration from the people. I take it with me for all my concerts. People love it.

You can imitate confusingly voices and string instruments, so that is why it’s so special.

If children are in the audience, then certainly fifteen children stand in the row to come up on the stage and to try this instrument out. So that is why I had to shorten slightly the repertoire that day.

It is not a secret that yoga is an important part of your life …

Yes, I sit a lot, because I spend practicing eight hours a day before concerts and this is an exhausting mental work. After this, I have to do a different kind of activity. Yoga has movements, which keeps my body and soul in balance. Once I have seen a photo of David Swneson, who is a yoga instructor and this photo touched me. When I tried yoga, after the first time I realized that I had to change the rearview mirror in the car, because I pulled myself so much. Recently, I could not believe when I have seen that David Swenson will have a three-day workshop at home – the person, who has the biggest influence on me at this field. It was a lifetime experience to take part in this workshop, it is still a wonderful memory and it was almost a month ago.

The concerts are extremely tiring physically, even though people cannot see this. It requires a serious stamina. Besides playing on violin and theremin, I sometimes sing and dance as well, so without serious stamina I could not do it for hours. I usually say: let’s watch a baby who lifts his legs effortlessly behind his ears! People work on the destruction of this ability for decades and they get muscular and other problems. My motto is the following: there is only one guru – practicing! And this is true for all parts of our life.

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