New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: Pamelia Stickney

Saluting a Century of the Wacky, Versatile First Electronic Instrument

Now that live music – and movies, and sports, and museums, and galleries – in New York have been shut down by the coronavirus scare, what can a person do for entertainment? Spring is here: you could go for a good, long run…or listen to a creepy fifty-one track album of theremin music. Or do both at once – it’s on Bandcamp.

To be fair, the NY Theremin Society’s compilation album Theremin 100 isn’t always creepy. While Russian scientist Leon Theremin’s 1920 invention may be most readily recognized for its uncanny evocations of creaky doors in a million horror movies, there are thousands of artists from around the world who have mastered the granddaddy of all sci-fi instruments’ magical force field for both good and evil. A lot of them are on this record. And one of the best, Pamelia Stickney – who’s surprisingly not on it – had a scheduled gig on March 20 at the Owl, but like pretty much everything going on around town, it’s been cancelled.

The album’s first track, Christopher Payne’s Somnambulist is a loopy, swoopy, chromatic nocturne that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie: are those strings and bass real, or an expert theremin imitation? Other tracks in the same vein include Herb Deutsch’s Longing – one of many with just theremin and darkly neoromantic piano, and Ei and Kuli Schreiber’s surreal tunnel narrative Train Jumper, at the top of a substantial list.

Often the theremin will evoke a violin, as in Peg Ming’s Therexotica, a gentle, brisk bolero with retro 50s twinkle; About Aphrodite’s lustrous Membran Music; or where Gregoire Blanc adds just a hint of shudder over eerily glimmering piano in Waves – with a bridge that’s too gleefully grisly to give away.

Therminal C’s Sputnik Crash powerfully demonstrates the instrument’s vast range and little-used percussive potential, as does Thorwald Jorgenson’s epic seaside tableau Distant Shores. The theremin gets backward masked in Hekla’s Twin Peaks pop tune Indenderro, used for squiggles and ominous banks of sound in Aetherghul’s Fire in the Sky, and an imploring vocal analogue in Jeff Pagano’s The Ancient Sea.

Some of the acts here employ a theremin for laughs. The Radio Science Orchestra contribute Atom Age Girl, a wry space-surf theme; Everling throws in his droll, bloopy Playing Theremin Is My Madness. The joke is simpler yet subtler in Hyperbubble’s I’m Your Satellite, while Robert Meyer’s deadpan teutonic boudoir groove Taxi is pretty ridiculous. Matt Dallow’s circus rock theme Tailor Made Destination isn’t far behind.

A handful of these pieces are massively orchestrated, like the Nightterrors’ macabre, Alan Parsons Project-ish Megafauna. Others, including Dorit Chrysler’s atmospherically circling Murderballad and Elizabeth Brown’s desolate March 21, are more spare. Twenty-nine tracks in, an electric guitar finally appears in Veronik’s Anomala, which is sort of House of the Rising Sun with a theremin. Song number 38, by the Keystone, is a strangely drifting duet for lapsteel and theremin. The most atmospheric track here, Gabriel and Rachel Guma’s Balloons Tied Up in the Sky, evokes whalesong. The weirdest one, Aileen Adler’s Piezoelectric Dreaming, is a mashup of Balkan reggae and spaghetti western themes.

Much of the rest of this material is classically-tinged: Japan Theremin Oldschool’s take of Ave Maria; Tears of Sirens’ Under the Milky Way (an original, not the Church classic), and Lydia Kavina’s In Green, a pretty piano-and-theremin ballad that wouldn’t be out of place in the ELO catalog if that band had a theremin. Maurizio Mansueti does a great job getting his contraption to emulate bel canto singing in the moody Blindfolded, while there’s a real aria in Robert Schillinger’s Bury Me, Bury Me Wind. The compilers who put this thing together deserve enormous credit for the consistently high quality, vast scope and imagination of most everything here.

A Spare, Edgy, Incisive Jazz Poetry Album From Brilliant Violinist Sarah Bernstein

Sarah Bernstein has to be the most fearlessly protean violinist in any style of music. Just when you think you have her sussed, she completely flips the script. Beyond her brilliance as an improviser, she’s a master of eerie microtonal music. As a result, she’s constantly in demand, most recently this past weekend at Barbes as part of thereminist Pamelia Stickney’s hypnotically haunting quartet.

But Bernstein’s best music is her own. Her previous release, Propolis was a live benefit album for Planned Parenthood with an alternately stormy and squirrelly improvisational quartet including Alexis Marcelo on keys, Stuart Popejoy on bass and Nick Podgursky on drums. Her latest release, Crazy Lights Shining – streaming at Bandcamp – is with her Unearthish duo featuring percussionist Satoshi Takeishi, a return to the acerbic jazz poetry she was exploring a few years ago. Patti Smith’s adventures in ambient music are a good comparison; Jane LeCroy’s Ohmslice project with Bradford Reed on electronics is another. Bernstein’s playing the album release show on a great triplebill on May 30 at around 10 PM at Wonders of Nature; cover is $10. Similarly edgy, eclectic loopmusic violinist Laura Ortman opens solo at 8, followed by fearlessly relevant no wave-ish songwriter Emilie Lesbros.

“Come in to feel free, no fear,” Bernstein’s echoey, disemodied voice beckons as the album’s initial soundscape, For Plants gets underway. Takeishi’s playfully twinkling bells mingle with Bernstein’s shimmery ambience and resonant, emphatic vocalese.

Bernstein has never sung as storngly as she does here, particularly in the delicately dancing, sardonic Safe:

No one can find you
No one can eat you
You’re not alive
You are safe

Is that a balafon that Takeishi’s using for that rippling, plinking tone, or is that  Bernstein’s violin through a patch?

She subtly caches her microtones in the deceptively catchy, balletesque leaps and bound of Map or Meaningless Map:

…A calm enthusiasm should suffice
The fuzziness of an empty sleep
The rush to extrovert, sure thing!
Expressing can feel like living…

Bernstein’s uneasily echoey pizzicato blends with Takeishi’s rattles in the album’s title track, which could be the metaphorically-charged account of a suicide…or just an escape narrative. In the instrumental version of The Place, the two musicians build from a spare, slowly shifting mood piece to a slowly marching crescendo. A bit later in the vocal version, Bernstein sings rather than speaks: “There are war crimes and recipes and kisses remaining,” she muses.

The acerbically brief Drastic Times starts out as a snippy cut-and-paste piece:

Drastic times require tragic measures?
We live under a system (drastic)
…Like anyplace where thought control is under physical control
..Maybe that will change when the rest has exploded
Drastic time
Maybe that is something to look forward to!

Little Drops follows an allusively twisted narrative into chaos, in the same vein as Meaghan Burke’s most assaultive work. The album’s final cut is the kinetic Four Equals Two, its catchiest and seemingly most composed number, complete with a nifty little drum solo. Count this among the most intriguingly relevant albums of 2018.

Rapturous Nightscapes From an Invisible Orchestra by Pamelia Stickney

Pamelia Stickney is arguably the world’s foremost theremin player. By any standard, she’s done more than anyone else alive to take the original electronic instrument to new places. While most musicians use the early Soviet-era contraption for horror-movie shivers or comedic whistles, Stickney plays melodies on it. At various points in her career, those have ranged from desolate deep-space tableaux to earthy symphonic extravaganzas. At her tantalizingly short set this past weekend at Barbes, she led her ironically titled Transcendental Dissonance Quartet through a similar, stylistically vast expanse of styles, from film noir themes to lowdown latin soul to elegant chamber jazz improvisation.

Stickney plays theremin as if she’s playing a magical, invisible, somewhat cranky bass. Standing perfectly still, her right hand controlling the volume, she bends her left hand at the elbow, expanding her fingers outward to hit the notes. She saves the instrument’s signature, quavery, creaky-door effects for when she really needs to make a point. This time, she opened with a low bass synth sound that George Clinton would undoubtedly love to have in his arsensal.

Meanwhile, Stuart Popejoy – playing piano instead of his usual bass here – delivered tersely incisive, moody variations on a stark, Lynchian theme while Danny Tunick’s vibraphone sprinkled stardust throughout the tableau, violinist Sarah Bernstein completing the picture with airy washes and spare, plaintive  countermelodies. They would stick with this eerie, surreal thousand-layer cake of textures throughout their roughly fifty minutes onstage while Stickney channeled the sound of massed voices, a cello (which she also plays, among many other instruments), and various kinds of brass. Her m.o. is simple: a theremin takes up a lot less space when you’re on tour.

Midway through the set, she moved to the piano for a slowly unfolding, hushed duet with Bernstein, who finally got the chance to move through the magical microtones that have become her stock in trade over the last few years. Then the whole group reconfigured for a final nightscape.

Stickney is back in New York this September, where she’s doing a week at the Stone with a series of ensembles. In the meantime, she’s back on her home turf in Vienna this week, with gigs on May 24 at the Ruprechtskirche at Ruprechtspl. 1 – where she’s playing cello alongside the carnivalesque Hans Tschiritsch & NoMaden – and then on May 25 with her Scrambolage trio with pianist Monika Lang and cellist Melissa Coleman at Roter Salon, Wipplingerstr. 2 at 8 PM; cover is 15€/10€ stud.  And for New Yorkers, Bernstein is playing the album release show for her most lyrically-driven album yet this May 30 at 9ish at Wonders of Nature.