Itʼs been nearly 100 years since Russian inventor Léon Theremin unleashed his eponymous musical instrument on the world, starting an electronic revolution that is still reverberating. While it may seem like a novelty now, the theremin found quick acceptance in classical circles. After a popular European solo tour, Theremin played with the New York Philharmonic in 1928, and two years later a concert at Carnegie Hall featured no less than 10 theremin players. 

Carolina Eyck © Pražské jaro - Zdeněk Chrapek
Carolina Eyck
© Pražské jaro - Zdeněk Chrapek

Interestingly, many of the best theremin players have been women. Clara Rockmore, a violin prodigy whose career was cut short by tendinitis, collaborated with Theremin and became a virtuoso on the instrument who appeared with major orchestras. (Leopold Stokowski once said of her, “That girl could make music out of a kitchen stove.”) Thereminʼs great-niece Lydia Kavina is still performing, this summer with Kent Nagano and the Tonhalle Zurich Orchestra and at the Kuhmo Festival in Finland.

Carolina Eyck, 31, has been playing the theremin since she was seven years old, and has a bio that any musician would envy – appearances around the world with orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic and National Symphony Orchestra (in Washington, DC), collaborations with artists ranging from classical pianist and composer Fazil Say to rock guitarist Steve Vai, a growing collection of world premieres and authorship of an influential manual, “The Art of Playing the Theremin.” So who better to kick off and put a hip spin on the chamber music segment of this yearʼs Prague Spring festival?

The opening concert featured Eyck playing with an outstanding set of Prague musicians: pianist Karel Košárek, oboist Alžběta Jamborová and the Bennewitz Quartet. The quartet eased the audience into the evening with two straightforward string works, Haydnʼs String Quartet in G major Op. 27/5, and Martinůʼs String Quartet No. 3. Haydn sounded lean and clean, and the quartet did an impressive job maintaining the tension and hitting the challenging sonorities of Martinůʼs quasi-experimental 1929 piece.

From left: Carolina Eyck, Bennewitz Quartet, Alžběta Jamborová © Pražské jaro - Zdeněk Chrapek
From left: Carolina Eyck, Bennewitz Quartet, Alžběta Jamborová
© Pražské jaro - Zdeněk Chrapek

Prague Spring commissioned æther from Czech composer Jakub Rataj, who took the title from one of the original names for the theremin (ætherphone), and his musical cue from Martinů, who composed a fantasia for theremin, oboe and string quartet, which was the concluding piece on the program. Using the same instrumental combination, Rataj offered a series of swooping figures and phrases, followed by rolling textures occasionally punctuated by percussive effects. The theremin was notable mostly for not standing out, instead adding relatively muted colors and flourishes.

This approach stemmed directly from Martinůʼs piece, presented after a palate cleanser of Košárek playing the composerʼs delicate Butterflies and Birds of Paradise. Martinů wanted the theremin integrated into the sound like any other instrument, and from its placement in a standard semicircle to tones that matched the oboe, the presentation was strikingly traditional and the sound seamless. There was none of the otherworldliness associated with the instrumentʼs most common use, in sci-fi films; instead, it was unusually warm and harmonious. In a brief encore, Eyck also demonstrated that the theremin has amazing range (typically five and a half octaves), and in expert hands can produce nifty vibrato.

Carolina Eyck, Jakub Fišer, Štěpán Ježek © Pražské jaro - Zdeněk Chrapek
Carolina Eyck, Jakub Fišer, Štěpán Ježek
© Pražské jaro - Zdeněk Chrapek

Devotees had an opportunity to learn and hear much more the following night, when Eyck was joined by versatile Prague pianist Jan Kučera for an improv session at Royal, a theater-cum-nightclub. The setting was perfect for a collection of classical tidbits and modern jazz standards that gave Eyck an opportunity to create everything from sound effects (like a whistling wind) to soulful invocations of the human voice. In the solo part of her set, Eyck added her own voice, setting up vocal riffs on repeating loops as a rhythmic foundation for flights of electronic fancy. Eyckʼs gifts are not in singing, but in the electronic realm she can create mesmerizing dialogues with her instrument, and her musicianship goes up a notch when sheʼs performing her own pieces.

Itʼs a bit of a cliché to note that the theremin is the only musical instrument played without actually touching anything. Still, to watch a virtuoso like Eyck at work, and hear the finely crafted music she can create with fluttering fingers and the slightest turn of a wrist, is nothing short of magical. As she likes to say, “The notes are in the air.”