Plucking Music out of Air
Theremin is a kind of objet d'art, a curio of the stage that you imagine belongs in the dusty but well-loved collection of a purple-haired professor. Theremin recounts the life and times of Russian physicist and inventor Leon Theremin (1896-1993), who invented the first prototype for the television, and who was apparently the first man to create an electronic musical instrument. Known simply as the theremin, this device produces sounds from the interference created between electric waves when its player manipulates his or her hands around an electrode. This is the inventor's own account of how the theremin works:
Hotel Pro Forma's production opens with a strong hand by virtue of the very exoticism and rarity of its subject. Leon Theremin, a forgotten genius, led an extraordinary life punctuated by milestones of history. He met Lenin and showed Lenin the theremin, was interned in Stalin's gulag, worked for the KGB, and out-lived three wives and a fiancée (who threw herself out of the window, rendering Theremin an 80-year-old widower). Theremin is, in many ways, an elegy for this man's life of genius and curiosity, and it illuminates the inventor's aims of understanding science and creating art, the logical and the inexplicable.
Not content to ride on subject matter, however, director Kirsten Dehlholm employs an eclectic mix of narrative, music, tableaux and movement to weave a modern, avant-garde spirit into the story of Leon Theremin. The result is generally well-turned out, with a slight edge that balances the glaze of euphoric optimism about science and humanity. The preciseness of Dehlholm's staging - from lighting to facial expression - is commendable. The stage is lit by fluorescent light emanating from the floor panels, creating an eerie, otherworldly feel. Alternately warm and brilliantly harsh, the light paints a monochromatic mood to set off the carefully neutral expressions of the performers. Any variation in lighting is delivered with neat lasers. The linear placement of stage objects is clinically exact, matching the gleaming laboratory coats worn by the performers.
However, the true strength of Theremin is not in its early Soviet Union romanticism, geek science obsession or experimental staging. The core of Theremin is in the stark, sparkling "libretto" or vignettes, written by Michael Valeur. Through the rhythmic, deliberate narrative of Sarah Boberg (she is spared the lab coats, and wears an electric blue dress with elbow-high gloves of the same shade), snippets of Theremin's life are revealed from the perspectives of those who were once near him.
The story begins with an adult period account from star theremin virtuoso (player) Clara Rockmore, who sensuously describes herself as the female counterpart of Theremin. Her voice is clear but drawling, distorted into shimmery metallic notes, each syllable a jangled chord. There is an undertone of desire but it is divorced from emotion. Rockmore's desire is not fleshly, but scientific.
Moving back in time, we are told of Theremin's childhood by the voice of his mother, whose electronically-produced quaver describes a boy who loved electricity from a tender age. The tender, elegiac tone could almost be cloying when his sister declares that "nothing will ever be the same for (her) again" after she hears the theremin produce "the voice of the empty air itself". But the wonder of new Russia is established when Theremin's first wife describes the time as one "full of fear and promises", with "futuristic landscapes, where the whisper of the sine curve runs through new corridors".
As the momentum of history takes over Theremin's life, the bitter reality of Stalin's regime is beautifully captured by Theremin's second wife, Grace Lavinia Poole Williams, when her husband is taken away in the middle of the night:
Life in Stalin's death camps is starkly distilled in the words of Jelizaveta Aleksandrova, a prisoner:
As if to tease, the narrator reveals the notes of the theremin reluctantly and only partially at first, with a quick sweep of hands over the antenna. The three children who have been lining the back of the stage activate their theremins, each possessing an antenna like a metallic blade of grass. A peculiar combined theremin performance by the children and the old man ensues, and everyone plays earnestly as if they are members of a traditional orchestra.
Disappointingly, the voice of the theremin, that must have once been brimming with the hopes of scientific progress, is no longer exotic to current ears. Having been used for sound effects in old B-grade horror movies, its squeals and slides merely sound hackneyed today. The sound produced by the theremin is less "mellow yet piquant", as the director claims, and is more reminiscent of the flat-but-echoey wail of a windy instrument. While the theremin's tone may be some people's cup of tea, its one-time brilliance has long been surpassed by greater inventions of our century.
Perhaps this also marks a failure of the director's objective to elevate the status of the theremin from an original creation to a watershed invention - perhaps she promised more than the outdated theremin could deliver. The juxtaposition of the amateurish technique of the child string players against the syrupy prerecorded Rachmaninoff and the theremin virtuoso Lydia Kavina surely did not capture accurately the musical landscape of Theremin's life. Delholm's post-show explanation was that the children and the old man served to show the passage of time through Theremin's life, and the Rachmaninoff reflected the artistic environment of the period. Nonetheless, the hint of "protectionism" towards the theremin seemed more like a vote of no confidence. The finale performance by Kavina tried a little too hard to valorise the theremin. The emotionalism of Kavina's playing was slightly embarrassing and awkward. Her use of the theremin to play "covers" of popular classical tunes, mimicking orchestral string instruments, resounded with the desperation of trying to match up to something greater than itself.
Agendas aside, perhaps a clean focus on narration and atmosphere would made allowed Theremin to have come off better. The intended effects of Dehlholm's elaborately orchestrated tableaux, in particular, were probably lost on the audience. In one scene, the lights go off and the performers wave green light sabres in unison, producing whirling green lights. In another, the three children gaze, goggle-eyed, at a projector that produces blinding light. While not damaging to the production, it contributed a certain amount of drag to the pacing.
When artistic direction disregards conventional structures for new gestures, questions of why, when and what arise, as change needs to justify its existence. Unfortunately, the web of elements never quite comes together to form one cogent whole. "Inspired by the sheer curiosity that led to the creation of the instrument", Dehlholm's Theremin tells a fascinating story with beauty and originality. Now, if only it did not try to attribute too grandiose a significance to an object that does not deserve it.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /