The crux of a film like Blade Runner or Ex Machina – the bit that makes it heartbreaking – is that moment in which a glimmer of humanity escapes the machine. Is the robot’s emotional response really just a product of ones and zeros? Does it matter?
Fascination with this nebulous distance between machine-ness and human-ness is largely the reason that the grooves on my Clara Rockmore LP are worn smooth, and why a ravishing new release by another lion of the theremin is a welcome sight and sound.
Carolina Eyck’s Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet(Butterscotch Records) embraces the instrument’s eerie ability to embody the human voice as well as its seemingly interstellar range, inextricably linked at this point in culture with images of the cosmos and its possible inhabitants. With the dexterous American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) providing the harmonic and textural frame around which Eyck extemporaneously flits and glides – in single, unedited takes, impressively – the result is handsome and frequently bewitching.
A tight, running counterpoint of alternating major and minor thirds in the upper strings peels open the six-fantasy suite – and since nothing exposes wonky intonation like minimalism’s cycling arpeggios, a tip of the hat is due the unshakable ACME players here and throughout Eyck’s score. Alighting from, and returning to a unison D, the second movement “Leyomi” draws the five instruments the most closely into contact, with the theremin hiding behind the string harmonics, producing the enticing and unsettling illusion that the quartet is singing sotto voce before each voice slides away and back. Eyck has been honing her unique craft since the age of seven, and here we have evidence of her finesse at sharp-shooting pitch and manipulating tone, as she unwinds a plaintive aria.
Following the frosty scuttling of a nod to Bartók’s “Prestissimo con sordino” movement from the Quartet No. 4, listeners will flip the vinyl to discover perhaps the most overtly virtuosic track within, “Metsa Happa.” The familiar, church-lady-vibrato theremin juice is on full display, interspersed with Eyck cherry-picking individual pitches quite literally out of thin air and sounding akin to a DJ scrubbing a beat. ACME is positively buoyant in the Steve Reich-ian accompaniment, and effervescent in the tape-in-reverse effect that carbonates “Dappa Solarjos,” which follows.
While the composer-performer’s formidable prowess – and her ability to meld acoustic and electronic sound as well as notated and improvised creativity – is enough for a fully-absorbed experience, there is ample room for further exploitation of the abilities of the quartet. It would be quite a thing, if the band moved beyond its role as sonic scaffolding… a little further into the galaxy.
- Doyle Armbrust