Whoomp! Theremin Is!
Though it originated in Russia, the theremin, in a certain paradoxical sense, is a quintessentially American instrument. Invented in 1919, as the U.S. began its ascent to world power, by an emigrant physicist (Lev Sergeyvich Termen) who changed his name (Léon Theremin) and sold his patents to a big corporation (RCA), the device failed miserably as a consumer item (only 500 were reportedly sold). But its distinctive, spooky wail caught on with the intelligentsia. Miklós Rózsa (Spellbound) worked it into his movie themes, as did other composers in film (The Day the Earth Stood Still), TV (Dark Shadows), and later, rock music. “Good Vibrations,” often cited as an example of the theremin in action, is said to actually utilize a simpler-to-play variation created by trombonist Paul Tanner. However, acts as diverse as Led Zeppelin, Portishead, Esquivel, Pere Ubu, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion have employed Sergeyvich’s wonder. And was that a theremin on “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang”?
Yet even for those familiar with the instrument’s looping glissandos, hearing Lydia Kavina pluck distinct notes literally out of thin air—the theremin is the only musical instrument played without being touched—was startling. Accompanied by piano, then strings, then orchestra at the Society for Ethical Culture last Wednesday, the 32-year-old Russian virtuoso caressed the invisible energy fields surrounding the antennae of her $3500 MIDI-capable Moog Ethervox loaner. Works by Percy Grainger, Joseph Schillinger, and Isidor Achron, as well as compositions from Kavina’s own CD, Music From the Ether (Mode), set her New York debut recital alight.
While the promiscuous tonalities of Olga Neuwirth’s Bählamms Fest left me frigid, the troupe had our full attention for their performances of Rózsa and Howard Shore’s Ed Wood suite (which closed the show). Only one question remained: What do you call someone who plays one of these things? Later, the query stumped Kavina as well. “Thereminist?” she ventured with a laugh. “Or thereminista?”—Harry Allen
Songs of Faith and Devotion
The members of the chamber-folk group Ida have big hearts. Even though Capitol betrayed them by deciding not to release their latest album, Will You Find Me, Ida turned the other cheek and found Tiger Style Records willing to do it. And maybe it’s better this way. Doing things independently means you can turn your record release party into a benefit for others, specifically Brooklyn Legal Services, which provides free counsel to people with HIV. Choosing a house of worship—the Angel Orensanz Foundation, a synagogue on the Lower East Side—added to the sense of benevolence. Ida asked similarly lo-fi bands Secret Stars, His Name Is Alive, and Low to join them, and devotees were treated to over three hours of solemn, heavenly music.
In their eight or so years together, Ida’s tender, goose-bump-inducing harmonies and graceful balance of tension and silence have been known to make people cry at their concerts; they’re like religious conversions. Recently wed founding members Dan Littleton and Liz Mitchell rock back and forth and fall into a trancelike state when they play. Ida began with “Maybelle,” an introspective, midtempo tune with bass drum that th-thumps like a heartbeat. The song typifies the grown-up, poetic expressions of intimacy that pervade their new album.
Ida has added Karla Schickele on piano, bass, and vocals; Dan’s brother Mike plays drums; other friends and family sit in as well. Though few tears were shed this time, their captivating sound still reaffirmed your faith and left you feeling blessed. —Carrie Havranek
“We are now going into exile,” says Tony Schlesinger, chair of Brooklyn Heights’ St. Ann Center for Restoration and the Arts. Last week the center abruptly announced it would be ending its affiliation with St. Ann’s; a 21-year partnership with the Episcopal congregation raised $4 million to preserve the crumbling landmark church, primarily through the center’s avant-pop concert series. One of the few Kings County institutions capable of luring Manhattanites across the East River—last season’s highlights included Hal Wilner’s all-star Harry Smith tribute—the center is now looking at other venues, such as BAM and Town Hall, though it will not be able to replace the beloved intimacy of the 19th-century Gothic revival church or the massive stained-glass windows it restored. Schlesinger says the center was forced to act after the church tried to take control of the separately incorporated nonprofit by demanding prior approval over scheduling and grant decisions. Reverend Joade Dauer-Cardasis, the congregation’s rector, insists that the church was seeking only to bring the relationship into compliance with Episcopal canon law and make the space available for other uses. Each side says the other would not meet to discuss the issues.
Perhaps more disturbing to neighborhood residents than the loss of the center’s programs is the possibility that the building itself may be in trouble. The church, which is losing its cash cow, has refused to complete paperwork for a $250,000 matching state grant secured by the center to cover necessary roof repairs and hang netting below the ceiling to catch falling debris. “They couldn’t have raised [the money] without us,” says center director Susan Feldman. Dauer-Cardasis testily denies speculation that the diocese wants to shut the church down and sell its prime real estate, and is confident that the church can survive without the center. “We have the full support of the bishop and the community,” she says. “I am trusting that God will help us through all of this.” —Josh Goldfein