Voices and unusual instruments joined in an eye-opening double bill at (le) poisson rouge in New York City last night, as avant-garde vocalist Theo Bleckmann and theremin virtuosa Carolina Eyck each proved that experimental and idiosyncratic music-making can also be warm, homey, and even funny.
Bleckmann took the stage with a bank of electronics and a tableful of toys and small percussion instruments. But he opened his set with a riveting a capella “Duet for One” showing off his remarkable in-breathing technique. Leaping wide intervals from bass to falsetto, the tune even included a clicking sequence.
Nasality and capaciousness, energetic rhythms and subdued contemplative passages, nonsense syllables and “Lili Marlene” in German – the pieces displayed a bewitching array of modes. Electronically sampling words and sounds from his voice, quiet commentary from tiny toys, and bell tones and other sounds from small percussion instruments, he layered melodies, textures, and rhythms, captivating and amusing in equal measure.
In one piece he duplicated vocally the sound of a skipping CD. (I wondered if the younger people in the audience got the reference). One multi-textured song evoked desert winds, with a vaguely Middle Eastern-sounding tune gliding over electronically generated harmonics built on a single-note vocal drone. He sang through a kind of rubber mute, an egg-like percussion instrument, a small cone. He displayed his jazz chops. In a climactic number, he burst out of the concert’s prevailing moderate, thoughtful mood with loud and dissonant high pitches, reminding us via contrast of the importance of control even in the most avant-garde art.
Bleckmann closed his set with a beautifully textured interpretation of the old wartime favorite “Lili Marlene,” a song that never dies. (There’s even a new Off-Broadway musical named after it.) Sung in German, Bleckmann’s slow, luxurious interpretation was an appropriate transition to the set by German theremin virtuosa Carolina Eyck.
I first heard Eyck on her album Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet, but she performed by herself last night, and with a borrowed theremin at that, hers suffering from “jumping pitch disease.” Still, Eyck’s evident love for the theremin, whose popularity remains on the fringe but persistent, shone through every one of the short, mostly original pieces she presented, scored for (or improvised on) theremin, voice, and effects.
A thereminist varies pitch and volume on the electronic instrument – invented by Léon Theremin 90 years ago – by moving her hands (or other body parts) nearer and further from two antennae. The visual effect can thus be almost as striking as the sound, especially with the graceful choreography Eyck favors (but never pretentiously, always with a wink at the audience). The theremin is not easy to play. I’ve seen performances weighed down by poor intonation. Not so with Eyck’s consummate skill.
The instrument has a very pure tone. But by sampling and layering, Eyck produced a variety of textures, timbres, and moods, from ghostly to riotous. One piece suggested elephants tromping through the mud while monkeys and exotic birds called and swooped above. In a simpler song inspired by church music, the theremin sounded like an organ. Eyck also took a word shouted from the audience (“subway”) as happy inspiration for an industrial-sounding improvisation.
Her primary modus operandi was to sample harmonized vocal lines, sometimes with theremin pitches added as a bass line, then play theremin melodies over these repeated figures. Since the invention of reliable sampling equipment, many musicians have adopted this technique. It offers a solo artist the benefits of multipart live performance and organically differing variations of the same piece at each concert. Eyck used it to create appealing sound palettes, evocative themes, and lovely effects. Plainspoken and funny on stage, she’s a serious artist and avid advocate of her instrument, which she has worked into numerous musical settings. This solo show, in which she merged one of the earliest electronic instruments with 21st-century technology, represented only one of them.