THE REBIRTH OF THE

THEREMIN CELLO

 

On the evening of October 15, 2002, in the SLEE CONCERT HALL on the University of Buffalo's Amherst Campus, the electronic cello invented by Leon Theremin in the 1930's (photo above) and recently replicated by Mr. Floyd Engels, had its stage debut. This extraordinary event featuring an instrument that had not been heard in well over half a century, was the result of the amazing efforts and the persistence of UB musicologist, Professor Olivia Mattis.

Professor Mattis, widely recognized as one of the foremost experts on the ground-breaking 20th century composer, Edgard Varese (1883 - 1965), has long been one of the pillars of the worldwide theremin community and was the organizer of the First International Theremin Festival, held in Portland, Maine, in 1997.

It is neither my place nor my intention to describe in any detail the electronics of the amazing device known as the "theremin cello", I wish only to share what I found to be an important and magical evening of musical innovation and virtuosity.

 

 

The gentleman in the above photo (holding his theremin cello) is Mr. Floyd Engels whose dedication and meticulous research has resulted in the rebirth of an instrument that many believed was dead forever. In October of 2000, basing his design on a non-functional vintage theremin cello that had been found in a private collection by author and musicologist, Albert Glinsky, Mr. Engels began the painstaking process of duplicating the instrument, by a process of deduction. Since the instrument on which he was basing his design was incomplete, Mr. Engels, like a modern electronic Sherlock Holmes, was obliged to carefully retrace the steps that Leon Theremin himself must have gone through during the construction of the original instruments. After about a year, with assistance from his son John, and from theremin wizard Robert Moog, Mr. Engels unveiled his re-creation and won the prestigious BLUE RIBBON award from the Antique Wireless Association.

 

 

I had the luck to be able to attend part of the afternoon rehearsal (photo above) for the evening performance of Edgard Varese's ECUATORIAL. This composition, begun in 1933, was originally conceived for two theremin cellos, brass ensemble, bass voice, percussion, piano and organ. Not since its 1934 premiere in New York City's TOWN HALL, had it ever been performed on the instruments for which it had been composed - not until now that is! The above photo shows conductor Magnus Martensson (center) with bass baritone Nicholas Isherwood on his left, and the two seated theremin cellists (Jonathan Golove and Mary Artmann) on his right. One of the real surprises of the evening was bass singer, Nicholas Isherwood. Although the original score calls for an amplified voice, Mr. Isherwood's natural power, resonance and extraordinary artistry could probably have prevailed without it. Composer Varese requires that the singer, at a certain point in the composition, make a variety of unusual, chanting sounds on extended, nasal tones. Only an artist of Mr. Isherwood's accomplishment and overwhelming vocal conviction, could possibly bring this off without appearing either silly or pretentious. When Varese wrote the vocal score, he had the great Russian bass, Feodor Chaliapin (1873 - 1938), in mind for the role. Sadly, Chaliapin, who had one of the greatest voices the world has ever heard, never sang the role. I felt that all of us who attended this "second premiere" of ECUATORIAL were very fortunate to have had a singer of Mr. Isherwood's stature to interpret this powerful and compelling work.

 

 

Here are the two theremin cellists, MARY ARTMANN (right) and Jonathan Golove (left) during the performance. The theremin cello has a range of about five and a half octaves but Varese's composition calls for notes that are octaves above that. Apparently, Leon Theremin adapted two of his theremin cellos specifically for the task. The theremin cellists above accomplished the same goal quite admirably through the use of a modern pitch shifter. The effect was quite thrilling and the theremin cellos maintained their sonic integrity and could clearly be heard riding high above the powerful low and mid-range tones of the accompanying ensemble. The knobs seen on the cellos, like those on a theremin, control the tuning, volume and tone of the instrument. The stick-like control that protrudes from the side of the instrument is for volume and articulation.

 

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