Samuel Jablon talks to one of the original innovators of theremin music, Eric Ross.
Binghamton, NY is the home of Eric Ross a contemporary composer and thereminist. I have known Eric as his student, and now as a collaborator. Eric has dedicated his life to his music, and remains friendly, humble, and incredibly innovative. His performances range from jazz festivals in Berlin and Switzerland; Cornell University; the Guggenheim, Bilbao; to Lincoln Center. This interview explores his musical inspiration, and his multimedia collaborations with his wife and performance partner Mary Ross.
Samuel Jablon Eric, when did you start playing music?
Eric Ross I started playing piano at seven-years-old. My first teacher Jean Krantz-Thomas taught solid fundamentals of technique and instilled a love and respect for the great works of the classical masters. In college, I started playing the guitar and keyboards playing many different kinds of music: classical, jazz, rock, blues, folk, and avant-garde. Around the same time, I was introduced to the electronic synthesizer. After college, I realized I wanted to continue on in music as a composer and find my own voice and identity. The theremin, which offered a new palate of tonality, seemed a logical extension of my interest in electronics. By the 1980s I began playing my own music exclusively. I worked with a number of artists in my ensemble who helped me to consolidate my compositional approach.
SJ You told me, “It’s hard to make a living as a musician.” Are you able to make a living from music?
ER Music and business are two different worlds: if you want to play, you have to figure out how to support yourself. It’s often a trade-off, time for money. The most important thing is to stay on the music. You have to believe in yourself and not be deterred from your goal. It takes strength of character as well as musical ability. Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Charlie Parker, Cecil Taylor, among many, many others, were all desperate for money at points in their careers but they never gave up. I’ve taught, written, and done other music related jobs, like working in an electronic music studio, not to mention a few jobs non-music related, but always with music foremost in my mind. Since the ’80s I’ve been fortunate enough to create music full time.
SJ Why do you choose to live in Binghamton? How has it influenced your work?
ER We wanted to be close enough to NYC to showcase our work but far enough out to be "in the country.” The fact that there is a major educational center, Binghamton University, also helped. I like having space and quietude in my life and music, it creates a sort of inner sanctum, where I can hear the music in my head. I’m good at compartmentalizing, so I can compose on the road and then realize things in my studio. Having external and internal peace enables my musical energies to flow.
SJ How did you start playing the theremin?
ER I first started playing the theremin around 1976 when I had one assembled from a kit. In 1982 I used it on my first solo album, Songs for Synthesized Soprano. I filtered a soprano voice through a Moog Series III synthesizer, with electronic and classic analog tape studio manipulations, backed with electronically processed instruments including synthesizers, Balinese and Javanese gamelons, trumpet, bassoon, percussion, guitar, and prepared piano. At that time, the theremin was quite rare in new music. An objective of the Soprano Songs was to portray complex and varying psychological moods and states of being. The processed voice was used as timbre, color, texture, and for its emotive and expressive qualities. The theremin tracks blended into the mix well and gave it a special energy and atmosphere. The entire cycle of songs was unified by the presence of derivations from a single tone row. The row is presented in each song and developed along different lines in each one.
The album was released on Doria Records, a NYC jazz label. It helped get me started professionally. A number of musicians picked up on it including Pierre Boulez, John McLaughlin, BB King, among others. It’s since become a classic vinyl and a collector’s item.
In 1982, I met Youseff Yancy, jazz trumpeter and thereminist. He’d worked with Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, James Brown, and others. We began a long collaboration with concerts in Lincoln Center, Brussels, Berlin JazzFest, and elsewhere. I liked his approach to music and the theremin.
That same year, I met Clara Rockmore, the great virtuosa of the theremin. I was invited to her home in New York a number of times. Occasionally, she’d played for me and was an absolutely amazing player. Her advice and encouragement was greatly appreciated. She said at the time that both she and Professor Lev Theremin were glad to know that someone was writing new compositions for the theremin. Although she’d been retired for many years from the concert stage, she was interested in having me write a Theremin Concerto for her. Youseff Yancy and I later played parts of this “Concerto (Op.24)," at Lincoln Center. She always felt very strongly that the theremin was a serious musical instrument, not a fad or a gimmick.
In 1991, I met and played for Professor Lev Theremin during the making of Steven Martin’s award-winning movie, Theremin-Electronic Odyssey. We were filmed, and I played my instrument for Prof. Theremin. At one point, I played through my wah-wah pedal. He hadn’t heard that before. He tried it himself and to good effect. He later told me of his plans to build a polyphonic theremin. He was in his nineties then but was still creative and forward thinking.
In 1995 I met inventor Robert Moog at Cornell University in Ithaca. I used one of his newer model theremins for my concert there. It’s interesting that he started and ended his career making theremins. He said that his synthesizers were inspired by Theremin’s designs, which were both simple and elegant. I got to know him better at a week long Theremin Festival in Maine in 1997. I played his MIDI Ethervox theremin, which was still in development. These people inspired me to continue using the theremin as a voice in my own compositions. I’ve used it in all my major compositions since the ’80s and plan to continue to do so.
SJ What do you think of the laptop as an instrument?
ER It’s really changed the entire market and the way we choose to listen to music. There’s a lot of things to sift through, but there’s also important and imaginative works being done by people who in other times and places wouldn’t have the tools or the audience to express their ideas
SJ What do you listen to for inspiration?
ER I try listening to everything. I find inspiration in nature and in quiet places but also in the center of modern cities where the pace is fast and somewhat furious. I like the visual arts, painting, photography, sculpture, video, and movements such as Expressionism, Surrealism, Abstraction, Modernism, Post-modernism, etc. I don’t know how it translates into music, but I feel its so enriching that it must be positive in many ways.
I met poets Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Amiri Baraka, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and have tried to understand their works, and how to use the rhythm and sonic impact of words in my music.
SJ You told me what is spoken is very important for you. Could you expand on this?
ER A cry, whisper, or scream all mean certain things regardless of the words used. The tone is as important as the words. The sound conveys meaning. The vocal portions in my work often use several different languages spoken in a stream of consciousness form. The text is a kind of surrealist autobiography.
SJ What attracts you to music?
ER Unity of form and content. Synthesis is both a process and goal in my music. I got involved in jazz for the expressive aspects. My ideal of jazz is spontaneous organization, composition, editing, arrangement, and performance.
SJ You perform with your wife Mary Ross. Could you talk about your collaboration with her? Would you also describe the multimedia role in your performance?
ER We’ve been working together and doing multimedia performances since the 1970s. Mary’s video is another line in the score; I see it as color, texture, light, and movement. Also for me, of course, it’s a bit more. I become immersed in her work; it becomes a bit surreal, an autobiographical montage of memories compressed, shuffled, rearranged, and reexamined. We’ve worked together for so long that we kind of know intuitively what we want in terms of our merger of music and video. The editing process is very demanding. It’s the result of hard work, tough decisions, and careful thought. In concert, I seldom have to change anything in the music to fit with her videos because at that point, it flows together rather naturally.
SJ Could you define synergy, and relate it to the work you do with Mary?
ER Synergy arises when persons with different complementary skills cooperate.
Mary’s early work with video synthesizers (limited edition, hand built machines that used electronic circuits and devices to manipulate the TV signal) resulted in a style of video art called “image processing.” Her manipulation of the video signal to make abstract imagery closely paralleled my work with analog audio synthesizers and the theremin. As our work developed separately and collaboratively over the years, both the imagery and music has evolved into non-literal, non-narrative forms. Mary describes her work as “imaginary narratives” where I compose specific themes for some parts and improvise other sections.
In performance, I like to create unexpected relationships musically, not a literal interpretation of events on the screen. A shot from the ‘80s may be preceded by a shot from 2009 or ’90s or vice versa. There are no fixed time codes and material is not mixed or laid out in a set chronological manner. In my music, a theme or an instrument from another decade can be re-expressed in a new context, resynthsized and used again. While the video is fixed, my relationship to the video is ever changing.
SJ How has your style developed? Do you ever go back to an older piece and rewrite it for a contemporary audience?
ER I think all the elements of my “mature” style were present when I was beginning. I was interested in synthesis of different sounds and styles. I had some knowledge of classical music, I played in some good groups, got to see and hear some great artists. Freedom and expressiveness in music—that was always important. But expression without technique is inarticulate just as technique without expression is empty display. It came about by staying true to my vision and ideas and working through them. BB King said to me 30 years ago, “Stay with it, Eric.” If you believe in your art, you have to stay on it no matter what.
Concerning rewrites, I’ve been doing some pieces like “Rimn Vornl (Op37)” for over 25 years. I’ve reedited it a couple of times, once in the ‘90s and again recently to incorporate new things I’ve found to play in it, to keep it fresh and current. I know the audience has perhaps never heard it, but I need to have it relevant in my own mind, so I’ve added some things and eliminated others. I like to change things around so I don’t get bored. It would be deadly to play the same things the same way night after night. Usually, I don’t go back and redo things. I’d rather write something new. Sometimes it’s hard to reenter the spirit of a piece after it’s over and the time period it inhabited it’s gone. As for my musical theories and working method, they’ve stayed remarkably the same over time. I’ve added new tools and my approach has broadened. One new thing for me is taking an online class in the compositional methods of Joseph Schillinger. It’s a very mathematical approach and very different from my own methods. I’ve learned a lot from his works and it’s given me some fresh perspectives on composition.
SJ Could you break down the elements in your music?
ER Four basic elements of music are: melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre. I make atonal, serial, or chromatic melodies and develop them across a wide range of pitches. I use harmonies developed tonally, atonally or freely with other material. I use both dense harmonies, sometimes verging on discord and dissonance, with a heavy weight of tones, while at other times, very thin monochromatic colors, harmonies, single lines, or counter-punctual material. Regarding rhythm, pulse, or motor, when you use an irregular pulse and unusual subdivisions, the time is measured differently. Two of my favorite moods are fast hard driving tempos and slow floating open time. Timbre is a subject still wide open to the electro-acoustic universe; many unusual and subtle colors are available. Everything in the entire world has a timbre and can be used musically. The combination of these techniques makes for a different psychoacoustic effect. If you develop all of these basic elements with imagination and creativity, you can approach something new.
Eric’s Personal Solo Guidelines:
1. Remember, the single most important element in a performance is
intensity, in expression, speed, dynamics, and phrasing.
2. Energy, energy, always more energy.
3. Play something you’ve never heard before.
4. Display and extend all your playing techniques, use all your colors,
timbres, and effects. Use the principles of unity and variety.
5. Play with fire, speed and accuracy. Jump in the stream of sixteenth
notes, faster overall thought, quickness, deftness, grace, and expression.
6. There is no substitute for certainty. Be precise.
7. Careful use of resolution notes.
8. Think of "The Disappeared,” and be more expressive. Play with
conviction, as if it’s the last time you’ll ever play.
9. Hit the central note in the mix to energize the blend. Hit notes "out of
the blue,” “self-destruct,” type notes to stun the audience and myself. Create spontaneous composition, organization, arrangement, editing and performance. What you play at any moment is a measure of yourself as an artist.
10. Maintain a sense of the elements of drama in performance, attitude, and
feeling, total concentration/relaxation from the first note to the last .
11. Get to the next level of transcendence. Notes form the capacity
to please of delight. Healing powers, the concept of “Swara” meaning
self-illuminating or self-shining .
12. Generate light beyond heat.
Samuel Jablon is a painter and writer based in Brooklyn, New York. His work explores travel, interaction, daily experience, and an individual madness/obsession with absurdity, contemplation, and humanity.