Carolina Eyck with ACME: Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet
Butterscotch Records

Carolina Eyck has done much to rid the theremin of its gimmick status and legitimize it as an instrument that can credibly take its place in any number of serious music contexts. The German-born performer and composer has appeared with orchestras throughout the world, conducted numerous workshops and master classes, and has performed and recorded with pianist and composer Christopher Tarnow as a duo since 2013. In this new collaboration with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), Eyck's found an ideal partner to help bring her vivid compositions into being. In operation since 2005, the outfit has consistently championed contemporary American composers and has worked with collaborators from The Richard Alston Dance Company and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch to Grizzly Bear, Matmos, and A Winged Victory for the Sullen. Some ACME members' names will be familiar to textura readers: Caroline Shaw, here on violin but also known for her vocal contributions to Roomful of Teeth, and violist Caleb Burhans, who released the fine solo album, Evensong, in 2013 and is a member of Alarm Will Sound, among other outfits. Joining them on the recording are cellist Clarice Jensen, also ACME's artistic director, and violinist Ben Russell.

It's an interesting recording on many levels. While the performances were executed as full takes with no editing, ACME recorded its material first, after which Eyck overdubbed fluid, single-take improvisations. At thirty minutes, the recording is short, even by the standards of a vinyl LP, the format for which Fantasias was conceived from the outset. Eyck and producer Allen Farmelo (an essay by him also appears with the release) deliberately structured it so that the three pieces on each side would form musical arcs across each side and the album as a whole. The approach to titling bears worth mentioning, also, with the two having reviewed multiple Scandinavian languages to find pleasing lingual combinations; that being said, when the six track titles are translated into English, the tonal character of the musical material proves to be perfectly matched to the track names. Speaking of which, the album title itself was not randomly chosen, given that fantasia refers to a composition featuring a solo improvisation at its center.

A review of the individual pieces reveals the close connection between the titles and musical settings. In the quartet's playing, “Oakunar Lyntuja” (Strange Birds) evidences strong ties to the uptempo arpeggiations of the early works of Reich and Glass; Eyck pursues an entirely different line in using glissandos and her instrument's unusual sound-generating properties to evoke the chatter of, well, strange birds. Glissando effects also emerge during “Leyhomi” (Luminescence), though this time they're used by both the theremin and strings to produce a swirling, dream-like state of ethereal character; Eyck demonstrates a deft command of pitch, intonation, and dynamics as the ghostly theremin hovers high above the strings, which are likewise suspended at a high level. In “Nukkuva Luohla” (Sleepy Dragon), the theremin generates stomach-rumbling bass drops to perhaps suggest disturbances the creature's experiencing during restless slumber, while the suitably agitated “Metsa Happa” (Jumping River) finds the theremin warbling and swooping in a manner consistent with the common conception of it.

While there are clearly differences in tempo and dynamics between the pieces, they collectively conjure the image of a mystical forest teeming with fantastic creatures, dew-covered flora, and entrancing visual displays. The recording also does much to distance the theremin from whatever associations have accrued from its inclusion in sci-fi film soundtracks and “Good Vibrations”; in that regard, one of the most noteworthy things about Fantasias has to do with the broad range of sonorities Eyck coaxes from the instrument. Were one presented with the stirring closer “Nousta / Needad” (Ascend / Descend) sans recording details, the listener would no doubt mistake the theremin for the haunting wordless vocalizations of a female soprano.

October 2016