Thursday, December 24, 2009

December 24: Lydia Kavina, "Music From The Ether"

Artist: Lydia Kavina
Album: Music From The Ether
Year: 1999
Label: Mode

While the term "experimental" or avant-garde music is often used in reference to some type of unorthodox approach to an established musical style, when one really thinks about the term, it simply should not work in such cases. Even groups like The Fall, Suicide, and Captain Beefheart, while certainly not playing like anything else ever recorded, are still at some level playing within an established genre. This idea becomes even more clear when one hears music that IS actually experimental, and such an experience enable a listener to more accurately place non-experimental acts into proper genres. There are few finer examples of experimental music than one will find in the uniquely stunning work of the woman who is without question the finest theremin player on the planet: Lydia Kavina. Hailing from Moscow, Russia, Lydia Kavina is one of the few people in the world who can call themselves a "professional" theremin player, and her brilliant performances can be found alongside some of the worlds' finest orchestras, as well as the core music in a number of films, most notably 1994's Ed Wood as well as being prominently featured in the theme to the long-running BBC show, Doctor Who. Along with her brilliant performances, Kavina also writes an overwhelming majority of her own pieces, and this further cements her name as one of the most talented performers in the modern music scene. While each of her records is an amazing musical experience, it is her magnificent 1999 release, Music From The Ether, that stands as her finest work, as well as one of the most extraordinary albums ever recorded.

The theremin is without question one of the most interesting, yet still rather obscure musical instruments ever invented. Patented in 1928 by Russian inventor Lev Sergeivich Termen (AKA Léon Theremin), it is also known as an etherophone or a termenovox and was one of the earliest electronic instruments. In fact, upon seeing the instrument, then Russian leader Vladimir Lenin found the device so amazing that he sent its inventor on an around the world trip to show other countries the technological advances of Russian minds. In short, the theremin is made up of a pair of metal antennas which sense the position on the players' hands and in turn control the oscillators which creates the sound. One hand works with one of the these antennas to control the pitch, while the other is used to control the volume. This makes the theremin one of the most difficult instruments in history to play, as there are not keys, frets, or any other sort of marks to indicate "what" note you are playing. To this point, the theremin is completely unique as it is the only instrument in history that one does not actually touch to play. The sound that the theremin emits perfect defines the word "eerie," and it was used in many of the early horror movies, and though it has largely been replaced by synthesizers in more recent years, the sound remains the "ultimate" creepy sound. Though it is often difficult to find a teacher for such an instrument, Lydia Kavina was able to learn from the best, as she was taught to play theremin by her grand-uncle, Léon Theremin.

Though the theremin is a rather rare instrument to hear within the confines of a larger orchestra, Lydia Kavina's playing is so highly respected across the globe that she is regularly able to enlist the services of the finest musicians on the planet as her backing players. On Music From The Ether, she brings with her the talents of the Portland String Quartet, as well as pianist Joshua Pierce and soprano Elizabeth Parcells. Aside from Kavina, Pierce's playing is the most prominent on the album, and he proves to be one of the most talented classical players of his generation. Often bringing a power and tone similar to that of David Helfgott, Pierce's playing is one of the finest musical compliments that Kavina's theremin has ever found. The way in which the two interact is truly magnificent to experience, as these are clearly two exceptionally skilled musicians who are able to push one another to greater heights. On "In Whims of the Wind," a piece which Kavina herself wrote, the stunning voice of Parcells blends brilliantly with Kavina's theremin, and Lydia shows her true skills, as she makes the pitch of her instrument perfectly match that of Parcells' voice. Sounding like two unique singers, it is moments like these where one fully realizes the true talents of Kavina, as well as the limitless applications of the theremin.

While her backing musicians are fantastic and her compositions truly would not exist without them, there is simply no other musician on the planet that makes music quite like Lydia Kavina. While many music museums and "hands on" museums have theremin's on hand for the public to try, it does not take long for one to realize that it is without question one of the most difficult and precise instruments ever created. Without physical manipulation, playing theremin requires great concentration and an exceptionally delicate touch. Kavina shines throughout Music From The Ether, as every note is perfect, and she also shows a clear understanding of the finer points of music, as she gives notes the perfect sustain and waver when needed. These nuances, which are often lost among more recent artists, are where Kavina shines, as her compositions are some of the most original and complex of her generation, regardless of the featured instrument. There are also countless parts throughout Music From The Ether, most notably on "Fantasia for Theremin," where Kavina makes the theremin sound as if it is singing. As was previously stated, this comes to full realization on "In Whims of the Wind," yet there are countless other moments throughout the record where one must concentrate on the sound to decipher if it is Parcells' voice or Kavina's theremin that is being heard. From her technique to the compositions she creates, Lydia Kavina is without question one of the most intriguing and talented performers anywhere in the current music scene.

Much like terms like "alternative music" and "indie rock," labeling a sound or artist "experimental" occurs far too often, and most of the time, it is rather inaccurate. While it may sound a bit different than a majority of performers, an overwhelming amount of the time, "experimental" music is simply an established style being performed with a slightly different sonic texture. Taking a rare obscure instrument and mixing it into a classical format, Lydia Kavina truly embodies the idea of "experimental" music, and there has never been another sound or style that resembles the music she creates. Having been taught by the instruments' inventor, Kavina clearly understands the innermost workings of the theremin, and with this knowledge, she is able to compose some of the most breathtaking and unique musical pieces that the world has ever heard. From the signature "eerie" sound to points where the theremin almost appears to sing, Kavina's touch and skill on the theremin places her in a class of musicians all of her own. Across the board, in every way possible, Lydia Kavina proves to be a true musical genius and creates soundscapes like nothing else ever heard, making her 1999 album, Music From The Ether one of the most uniquely fantastic musical experiences in history.

Standout tracks: "Dance In The Moon," "Fantasia for Theremin," and "In Whims of the Wind."

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