BY THOMAS MISSON
Museum of Old and New Art, Tasmania, 20 January
Many people know the theremin from the TV themes from Midsomer Murders and Dr Who, and have never seen the instrument performed. Carolina Eyck, alternating between the accompaniment of Jennifer Marten-Smith and Jim Moginie, set out to address this in their two performances at Mona Foma.
In their outdoor performance on the main stage, the electric keyboard provided for Jennifer Marten-Smith drastically undersold her capabilities as a pianist, the instrument failing to demonstrate her fine touch. However, the videofeed of Eyck’s hands in the main stage gig was an advantage, allowing the audience to acquaint themselves with the large variety of movements used in manipulating the theremin. Even a simple scale demonstrated by Eyck was unexpectedly complex in realisation. Acoustically speaking, the indoor performance at the Nolan Gallery was a far superior acoustic and Marten-Smith’s highly refined sense of balance and understatement was much better conveyed with an upgrade to an acoustic grand.
Eyck and Marten-Smith’s collaborations consisted of mostly Romantic-period works including Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 by Villa-Lobos. Eyck conjured a convincing cello sound in Saint-Saens’ Le Cygne in its mellow tone and vibrato. The lyrical abilities of the theremin were best showcased in a poetic rendition of Rachmaninoff’s vocalise, Marten-Smith and Eyck achieving a wide dynamic range together.
In Eyck’s hands, the tone of the theremin was diverse with flecks of trombone and Eastern string instruments like the erhu. The more dexterous facets of her musicianship were taken to impressive heights in the slightly aggrandised litmus test for musical agility: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee. With the aid of an effects pedal to keep a constant stream of notes, the rapid chromatic passages were controlled with impressive accuracy and fluency.
Midnight Oil’s Jim Moginie contextualised the theremin differently in his partnerships, exploring a wider range of styles and techniques. Experimentally-speaking, the climax of the performance was like a musical rendering of a conversation between Moginie and Eyck with questioning upward inflections, mocking, sarcasm and joviality conveyed in the duo’s gestures. This lasted only a couple of minutes but came across as slightly jarring when alternated so frequently with the relative conservatism of the classical works. For me, the highlight was a more ambient, psychedelic piece in which Eyck would spontaneously decorate a repetitive backdrop of guitar chords from Moginie, both of them using various electronic effects for embellishment and atmosphere.
The collaborations of both Marten-Smith and Moginie seemed to have different intentions at heart in their duos with Eyck. Firstly the idea of introducing and normalising it as a viable instrument on which to perform melodic classical repertoire. Secondly, introducing the public to the instrument as a rare curiosity, and a novel sound and instrument in its own right. These two approaches were alternated so frequently that I sometimes didn’t feel I had time to connect with each small piece, or the narrative of the event as a whole. In addition to this, the event itself was quite conservative overall in its choice of repertoire.
Image supplied. Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin, courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia