If you thought the theremin was only for corny sci-fi film soundtracks and intergalactic sound effects, think again. It may be October, but the theremin makes (electromagnetic) waves all year round.
Just ask Carolina Eyck, one of the world’s foremost theremin virtuosi—in fact, she quite literally wrote the book on it. For the past decade, her performances in classical and contemporary music around the world have helped promote the instrument and build its repertoire.
For Eyck’s latest project, she composed and recorded Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet: an entire album of works highlighting the theremin’s unique capacity for improvisation and imagination. Oh, and she didn’t collaborate with just any old string players, either: the album features American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) members Caroline Shaw and Ben Russell on violins, Caleb Burhans on viola, and Clarice Jensen on cello.
Conceptually, the album was inspired by Eyck’s vivid childhood memories of the woods of Northern Germany where she grew up. In keeping with the whimsical, free-spirited explorations of childhood, Eyck composed the Fantasias for the 12” vinyl LP format—meaning that all performances were recorded in full takes with no editing. The string players tracked the scores first, and then Eyck overdubbed her deft, fluid, single-take improvisations—hence the title Fantasias.
The result is an organic virtuosity that leads the listener through the hazy and nostalgic soundscapes of Northern Germany, each piece an open window into Eyck’s imagination. And to add another layer of whimsy, the titles for each piece were devised by Eyck and the album’s producer, Allen Farmelo, by scanning multiple Scandinavian languages for pleasing lingual combinations.
The album begins with “Oakunar Lynntuja (Strange Birds),” Eyck’s nimble hands flittering up and down the theremin’s two antennas to produce the sound of metallic birds chirping amidst a forest of angular strings.
“Leyohmi (Luminescence)” shows a very different side of the instrument: Eyck’s patient fingers pull thoughtful whispers from the theremin, its gentle voice shimmering softly among luminous harmonics. Alternative bowing techniques blur the line between the theremin and strings, immersing the listener in a glistening and ethereal soundscape.
Then, as if having drifted into a fairy tale, “Nukkuva Luohla (Sleepy Dragon)” picks up with a sputtering sparkle of strings. A snarling theremin grumbles across its lowest registers like a drowsy dragon tossing and turning—and the strings flicker about like sparks from its snoring breath.
The strings swell and tumble like waves in the next fantasy, “Metsa Happa (Jumping River).” Eyck’s theremin melodies playfully hop in and out of the rolling river, soaring high above the waves and diving deep beneath their iridescent surface.
Another idyllic forest scene inspires “Dappa Solarjos (Dappled Sunlight).” Wavering string arpeggios imitate the forest of mottled leaves, with Eyck’s theremin painting the full spectrum of sunlight: light and dark, daytime and dusk.
The album closes with a more abstracted fantasia: “Nousta-Needad (Ascent-Descent).” A staggered string backdrop sets the stage for Eyck’s theremin as it hums quietly up and down from its highest, airiest registers to its lowest, earthiest grumbles—at times even crossing the realm into a distinctly humanlike voice.
It’s incredible that an instrument played with no physical contact by the performer could ever sound so human—that music once confined solely to intergalactic sound effects could ever be so intimate. These fantasias are proof of Eyck’s profound understanding of her instrument and, perhaps even more inspiring, her playful and imaginative musical voice.