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Santa Cruz's New Music Works brought the theremin into the great outdoors at annual Avant Garden Party

By Scott MacClelland

IN ITS ANNUAL AVANT Garden Party at its idyllic Topside Estgates, the New Music Works entertained guests Sunday with a variety of exotic music, featuring, but not limited to, a theremin. If this instrument is not known to you by name, odds are your most likely first contact with it was in the 1948 Moira Shearer film The Red Shoes. For the climactic ballet scene, composer Brian Easdale introduced the instrument to the moviegoing public, imparting to the score a weirdly hypnotic and dangerously seductive sound.

Sunday afternoon, UC-Santa Cruz music and electronics student Joseph Minicello performed music by Satie and Rachmaninoff on his theremin. Actually, next to his theremin. One plays a theremin as one conducts an orchestra: no physical contact with the instrument itself.

The theremin, first demonstrated by its Russian inventor, Lev Theremin, in 1920, creates an energy field radius that extends up to five feet. Within that space, movement by the hands of the player (or any body part, actually) activates an interference mechanism that, when connected to an amplifier and loud speakers, creates a distinctive tone.

More distinctive than the tone, however, is the continuous portamento, a kind of constant glissando that makes it all but impossible to segregate notes one from the next. It is this sliding from note to note that gives the theremin its strange allure, at once compelling and menacing.

To play the theremin, Minicello held his right hand before a vertical antenna, adjusting his fingers in small gestures to change the pitch of the notes. With his left hand positioned above a horizontal loop antenna, he controlled the loudness, which grew as he pulled further away from it. Using this technique--and barely more than a year's experience with the instrument--Minicello demonstrated the peculiarity of the theremin as much as the difficulty of playing it.

Minicello's theremin was purchased for $3,500 from Robert Moog (best known for the Moog Synthesizer), who builds them to order and also sells them in kit form. Unlike Theremin's original five-octave instrument, Moog's covers a full eight octaves and uses a floppy-disc mechanism that allows the player to record and subsequently play back his or her compositions.

The hardest thing for a player to do is get and keep the notes in tune. One must hold the right hand absolutely in place and motionless, except for slight movements of the fingers. In Rachmaninoff's Vocalise, several notes were painfully out of tune at the start. But as the piece unfolded, Minicello gained confidence and control. Still, one had to stifle laughs at the spectacle of a theremin player in brightly colored beach attire groping Rachmaninoff's soulful elegy while a female dancer dressed in faux tin cans--to look like a robot--put forth a slow-paced choreographic interpretation. (At least Mickey McGushin's piano accompaniment kept the event relatively grounded.)

The musical events of the day also featured the premier performance of the NMW-commissioned Light at the End of the Tunnel by Fred Frith. Long-held intonations sustained a solid sonic fabric through which each player wove his/her part according to a repeating pattern. But all the patterns traveled at different paces, resulting in a one-of-a-kind performance.

The slowly unfolding sonority was thickened by recordings of the piece made the day before, and some of the players stamped the stage periodically to jangle bells worn at the ankle. Other highlights were Chris Pratorius' haunting Madrigal: Neruda's Poem 20, James Cohn's blues-inflected Psalm 23 and music director Phil Collins' highly pointillistic At Land, all spotlighting soprano Rita Lilly. Worthy of note were Jon Scoville's score for the film Les Mystères du Château de Dé (heard with the film itself at the previous NMW concert) and the premiere of Don Myers' Mi and Fa Went Strollin', played by clarinetist Bruce Foster and cellist Karen Andrie.

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From the June 13-20, 2001, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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