Carolina Eyck and Christopher Tarnow:
Improvisations for Theremin and Piano
A number of things recommend this release, but two in particular stand out. The first is that it thoroughly accomplishes one of its stated goals, that being to rescue the theremin from being seen as nothing more than a novelty instrument famous for its use in The Beach Boys' “Good Vibrations,” Star Trek, and countless sci-fi and horror film soundtracks. Like few other instruments, the theremin has over time become saddled with campy associations—flying saucers, ghosts, and aliens, to name three—that a serious player such as German theremin virtuoso Carolina Eyck would love to see go away. It's an instrument, in other words, that few take seriously, at least on this side of the Atlantic—in Europe, the instrument enjoys a better status as a serious concert instrument.
Another thing that distinguishes the recording is that the eight pieces performed by Eyck and fellow Leipzig-based pianist Christopher Tarnow are improvisations as opposed to cover treatments of well-known classical pieces like Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and Ravel's Bolero. The daring approach the two brought to the project didn't appear out of thin air but was instead worked out methodically in advance with producer Allen Farmelo (also the head of Butterscotch Records), whose detailed liner notes provide fascinating background. One learns from them that the usual in-studio hierarchy between producer and performer was replaced by an egalitarian approach that placed the musicians and producer on equal footing; one also learns that no editing was applied to the album material and that what's presented on the recording, which was laid down in Brooklyn, New York, is exactly what was played.
As players, Eyck and Tarnow were up to the challenge. She began studying theremin at the age of seven with Lydia Kavina, who developed the early technique with Clara Rockmore, the now legendary student of Leon Theremin; Eyck is also credited with one of the most influential instruction books on the instrument, The Art of Playing the Theremin, while recordings by Tarnow have received multiple awards and been nominated for others.
Given the training of the musicians involved, the improvisations naturally retain the harmonic sophistication of classical music (Tarnow's ruminative playing on “10,000 Bells” and “Quiet Snowfall” conveys an Impressionistic quality), yet because they are improvisations, they also don't slot themselves so strictly into the classical genre only. The piano serves as a superb complement to the theremin in that it allows for multi-layers of expression that expand upon the single melodic line produced by the theremin, and the pronounced timbral contrast between the instruments also ensures that both resound with clarity. The egalitarian nature of the project is also heard in the playing, where both players figure equally. While Tarnow does sometimes accompany Eyck as the lead player, there are just as many moments where the pianist's playing is at the forefront with the theremin adopting the role of accompanist. More often than not, however, the playing is characterized by fluidity, the lines separating soloist and accompanist blurred.The track titles (which, like the pieces themselves, came about through improvisation) often reflect the character of a given piece. “Somber Waking Up,” for example, has a mysterious, early morning feel to it, whereas the instruments' lower pitches burrow down as far as they can go during “Deep in the Earth.” The project's not without humour either, as shown by a melodic swoop of the theremin in “A Whale in Love” that truly does suggest a heartfelt chanson d'amour by the creature. Though at thirty-five minutes, Improvisations for Theremin and Piano might seem more like a mini-album than full-length, the recording doesn't feel incomplete. Instead, it registers as a satisfying document of an original and, in its way, bold project.