The theremin is not just for eerie sci-fi film soundtracks anymore—theremin prodigy Carolina Eyck is proving that the instrument once restricted to flying spaceships and intergalactic sound effects could just maybe have a wider range than we thought.
Eyck studied theremin from a young age with one of history’s most influential thereminists, Lydia Kavina. By the time she was 14, Eyck had developed her own technique, which she later published at age 17 in a book titled “The Art of Playing the Theremin.”
Now one of the world’s foremost theremin virtuosi, Eyck has performed and taught workshops around the world, and has collaborated with many prominent artists in both classical and contemporary musical settings.
In her latest project, she collaborated with pianist Christopher Tarnow to create an album of improvised theremin and piano pieces which push the boundaries of this electronic instrument beyond simply outer space.
The result is a new type of otherworldly sound—one that is haunting and ethereal, dark but unmistakably sincere.
The album, titled “Improvisations for Theremin and Piano,” combines primarily classical harmonies and counterpoint with the spontaneity and freedom of more avant-garde and experimental musical genres.
Though the two Leipzig-based musicians had originally considered recording an album of through-composed classical music, after discussing repertoire with their producer Allen Farmelo the three decided to create a fully improvised album.
“I was craving a more daring and collaborative approach to working together, one that would allow the studio to become a site of mutual creation rather than just documentation,” said Farmelo, who produced, recorded, mixed, and mastered the album. Farmelo is the founder and director of Butterscotch Records, the label on which the album was released.
In accordance with this egalitarian spirit, the musicians decided not to edit any of the material on the record. Instead, each of the pieces appears on the album just as it was performed in the studio.
“On this record what you hear is exactly what was played, and in my opinion the absence of editing lends these performances an organic vulnerability that is not always heard from meticulous virtuosos,” Farmelo said. “With vulnerability comes depth as we sense something slightly uncertain moving out on the horizon beyond mastery. I wouldn’t trade that depth for any amount of perceived competency, and I consider it one of this record’s most potent qualities.”
In order to create a sense of focus for each of the pieces, Farmelo wrote short phrases on dozens of sheets of paper and gave them to Eyck and Tarnow. Each phrase provided a general image or free-associative idea from which the musicians then created an improvised piece. The eight pieces which made it onto the album get their titles from the phrases that inspired each of them.
For instance, “Earth and Sky” features Tarnow performing as the earth and Eyck as the sky. Her theremin whispers shrilly above Tarnow’s rumbling and echoing bass chords, creating an austere but entrancing musical texture.
The musicians switch to a fuller sound for “Somber Waking Up,” which features a repeated melodic theremin motif weaving in and out of a softly pedaled piano backdrop.
“A Whale in Love” takes a more thematic approach, with the theremin’s tone as large and lethargic as a whale floating slowly through Tarnow’s intermittent harmonic waves and glistening melodic bubbles.
“Quiet Snowfall” features vivid musical imagery as well. Tarnow’s piano melodies sparkle softly above Eyck’s ambient, icy theremin backdrop, reminiscent of delicate snowflakes twinkling on a foggy winter night.
The timbre changes again for “Deep in the Earth,” in which Eyck’s theremin growls and rumbles as though it is drilling deep into the ground, the piano echoing its descent with its ominous intermittent chords.
The album ends with the unforgettable “Haunted Ballerina.” Tarnow sets the stage with jingling piano motif that repeats itself over and over like an eerie, broken music box. His haunting piano motifs dance with Eyck’s ghostly, low-pitched theremin melodies to create a lingering sense of darkness that lasts long after the final notes have been played.
With its remarkably wide range of musical timbres and textures, “Improvisations for Theremin and Piano” proves that the theremin is capable of much more than just cheesy sci-fi sound effects. It showcases the instrument as a genuinely heartfelt and expressive musical instrument, and in doing so, it pushes the theremin into truly uncharted territory.