I went to see Music From the Ether last week, in the Roter Salon in the Volksbühne building. It was supposed to be a musical performance based around the theremin, the performer being Dorit Chrysler, who the promotional texts described as “one of only a few performers in the world to have mastered” it as an instrument. I was pretty disappointed then to sit through a performance largely based around pre-produced soundtracks playing from a laptop at high volume, and accompanied by her own vocalisations, with the live-theremin layered thinly over the top as texture. The presence of the theremin felt almost as an after thought. This was not totally the case, and there were one or two pieces where the theremin stood alone, or was accompanied by a more discreet backing track; but in general what we were treated to was, I felt, a performer utilising the theremin as a simpllified aesthetic layer to add interest to otherwise competent, but banal music. Dorit Chrysler perhaps less mastered the theremin as an instrument, but rather as an alibi.
Recently I was in Ireland, and visited Project in Dublin, where Irish artist Jesse Jones was showing a newly commissioned three-part film, audio, and light installation piece entitled The Spectre and the Sphere, which centralised the theremin as one of the motifs. In the first part of the piece, Jones films theremin-performer Lydia Kavina playing a refrain from the socialist anthem, The International. The accompanying text draws attention to both Vladimir Lenin’s enthusiasm for the (at-the-time) newly invented instrument, declaring it “the sound and structure of the coming generations”; and to the presence of the theremin in American 1950’s science-fiction movies to indicate the presence of a malevolent ‘outsider’ figure. Jones here was hoping to trace both the shift in attitudes to communism spatially and temporally, but also the inherent otherness associated with the movement (and all its associations) in western culture in the 20th century; and perhaps globally now. The theremin acts as an agent of this analysis in the artwork, not purely because of its specific ties to early communism, but more generally because of the inherent ‘otherness’ we as the audience attach to it.
To return to Berlin, I wonder about the motives of the audience in the Roter Salon (including myself). Had we gone to see a music performance of Dorit Chrysler, or the performance of the theremin as a device, a strange and otherworldly object? The theremin is resistant to is use as a common instrument by the highly degree of fetishisation attached to it. It cannot be simply utilised to create an artwork, a musical piece, or a performance, whose identity has a degree of autonomy from the object that created it. All instruments and media of course make their mark felt on the product of their work. All works exist as the expression of the media and methods that produced them. But whereas most work maintains conceptual and formal elements autonomous of the means of production or expression, the theremin dominates too much in its fetishisation and otherness to allow this. Thinking back, I cannot ever remember a performer really playing music with the device, I’ve only ever seen people play the theremin.