Intervju: Pamelia Kurstin – me & my theremin

Av Bjørn Hammershaug
Først publisert på 20.07.08 i forbindelse med Safe As Milk 2008

Amerikanske Pamelia Kurstin kommer til Norge, og spiller på Safe as Milk festival i Haugesund. Kurstin er fra sørlige California, er en multi-instrumentalist og regnes for å være blant verdens fremste og mest progressive utøvere på theremin. Hun har samarbeidet med artister som David Byrne, Bela Fleck og norske Ulver, og slapp sitt soloalbum Thinking Out Loud i 2007. Hun bor for tiden i Wien.

Pamelia Kurstin er blant disse artistene som ikke kan plasseres til noen bestemt genre, og som heller ikke ønsker å tilhøre et bestemt musikalsk felt. Dermed passer hun godt inn på Safe as Milk, som nettopp søker å være en bred, genrefri festival. Kurstin har nærmest på egenhånd gjort thereminen interessant igjen, og både gjennom hennes uortodokse, imøtekommende vesen, morsomme sceneopptredener og utsøkte øre for musikk er hun en bemerkelsesverdig kunstner. Dette er hennes første opptreden i Norge som soloartist.

– As a soloist, I’m improvising and what comes out I can’t really describe. But it does involve the use of looping, since my instrument is monophonic and I like having layers of harmony, sier Kurstin.

Hun omtaler seg selv først og fremst improvisasjonsmusiker, og er ikke så opptatt av hva slags etiketter som puttes på det som kommer ut:

– Some people just know of me as a jazz thereminist, or classical, or playing with hard-to-describe bands or ensembles that don’t quite fit genres. Or you might run into me playing in some dive-hole beer and vomit stinking punk clubs along with a band covering a Black Sabbath song.

I det siste har hun spilt i tospann med Laurette Friis fra Tys Tys, i det som omtales som ikke-kategoriserbar form for musikk, et sted i grenseland mellom improv og struktur. Det bør også nevnes at piano er hennes opprinnelige instrument, og at et solo pianoalbum er under arbeid i disse dager.

Men det er altså som theremin-spiller hun er mest kjent, etter 11 år med dette elektroniske vidunderinstrumentet. Det er nærmest uunngåelig å la være å spørre om hvordan man faller for et instrument som vel er mest kjent fra utallige 50-talls sci-fi filmer.

Kurstin oppdaget thereminen gjennom en dokumentar om oppfinneren, russeren Leon Theremin, og fikk umiddelbart lyst til å prøve det ut – i likhet med de fleste instrumenter hun har vært borti – sammen med bandet Geggy Tah som hun da var involvert i.

– It was difficult, nearly impossible to find a theremin just to try out and we ended up buying one of the small theremins that Bob Moog was manufacturing, the Etherwave model. When I finally got the thing in the mail I immediately set it up to try it out. It was difficult, so I turned it around the other way and discovered I was a lefty on it – and it just made sense.

– At that time, I had some string arrangements for what we were working on recording, and I was having a hard time trying to find a cello and violin to borrow so I could just overdub the parts – no budget to hire a quartet – and I heard the possibilities of the theremin and knew, fuck it, I can do all those parts with the theremin and it’s a direct input clean signal. The parts were not so hard to play and my goal was just to play those parts. But I ended up playing more and more with it just for fun, and played it a couple of weeks later at a gig and it was kind of quickly that I started to be a session musician in Los Angeles recording theremin parts for people. It helped a lot too that I could read music. I ended up sticking with the instrument because it felt very comfortable to play and was capable of expressive subtleties that I love in bowed string instruments. If I owned a cello or violin, I probably wouldn’t have continued with the theremin.

Hva finner du mest fascinerende ved thereminen?

– This question is a can of worms! Let me try my best to summarize some things about what is so fascinating or interesting:

– First off, that it was of the very first synthesizers that were created with the idea in mind of not trying to be like another instrument. It is based on the idea of a musical instrument that is based on infinitely variable pitch and volume. The inventor didn’t make it controllable with a keyboard or other familiar interface that would resemble any other known instrument. It was something that you would have to use your ears to play, similar to working with your voice – with no visual reference points – but also, without physical reference points, which makes it very difficult, but forces the player to use intuition and ears. It is the only electronic instrument or synthesizer that is truly capable of sounding as vocal as a voice or string instrument and I don’t know of any other way that this concept could be accomplished even today. You realize that there is infinity between any two notes no matter how close together they are to each other, and the same idea with the volume control: It is like the first and last of the most advanced and forward thinking of ideas for a non-acoustic instrument to support the capability to sound so human and natural – besides also sounding completely the opposite, depending on how it is played.

– The other fascinating aspect of it is how it is all based on relativity. Moving the weight of your body from your heels to the front of your feet will re-calibrate the pitch field. For example, if there are three centimeters between a root note and a whole step, like from C to D, when you shift more body mass towards the pitch antenna, you will make the distance between the notes expand. And there is no such thing as a true consistency. It is a complete balancing act to play on it, and I think the only instrument that works this way, but makes it so difficult to get accustomed to.

Jeg leste et sted at du utviklet en spesiell teknikk som du kalte “the walking bass”. Hva går denne ut på?

– Oh, it was just a joke idea I had one night. I just thought, what if I play bass lines on it – since I am a bassist, and I had an octave pedal to drop the range on the small theremin, plugged it into a fat bass amp and it worked! In order to get a plucked upright sound, I just calibrated the volume control to be extra sensitive so with a small movement from the volume antenna, I could have full volume and staccato without jerking my hand strenuously and returning the hand to the volume antenna slowly to control how long the notes would “resonate” as if on a bass when plucking notes that walk slowly.

Hvordan arbeider eller øver du for å utvikle deg som theremin-spiller?

– Practice? He-he, I don’t practice. I hate practicing. It is really really, really, really boring. I think my progression has more to do with what I get inspired by, like something I hear and really get excited about wanting to play. And then somehow along the way of trying to execute something in a way I am happy with. It isn’t centered round the theremin. There are many things I like to explore with other instruments, and I think everything you dive into and explore makes some sort of contribution to everything else you do. Discovering something new I didn’t know I could do, and learning of a new technique to be able to make use of.

– Since I moved to New York and met a lot of people with much more diverse record collections, and also the move to Vienna. I think all of those inspirations have helped push me into experimenting with what I was doing and opening up to new ideas of the limitless possibilities of expression could be that could be explored.

Hva førte deg egentlig til Wien – og hvordan opplever du den byen?

– I think falling in love has inspired me to make the biggest long distance moves of my life, whether it be the time I spent not playing any music and living on a farm surrounded by animals and perfectly happy, or a move from New York to some city I never ever imagined or dreamt or considered living in if i were to move to Europe.

– By chance it seems to be a really great place for me after all; easy to get out to a farm and contact with animals, so many styles of music and inspiring people I am working with or just hanging out with here in town. I have my big classical gig debut at the Musikverein this fall, a hard-to-describe wonderful local band that is completely insane and hilarious and serious and weird, I recently became part of – and learning some Viennese expressions, poetry and culture from them.

– I really, really am loving how quiet it is everywhere. No background music when I go to coffee shops and restaurants. Quiet people. A really healthy place for me to rest when I am not on the road, but I couldn’t imagine being here full time. I think I would go completely nuts and depressive. It’s a good balance and challenge for me, especially learning German… ouch!

Din første soloplate Thinking Out Loud kom ut i fjor. Hva ønsket du å presentere med denne?

– It took a while to figure out what I would do. At some point I decided I wanted to make an album that is live improvisations, no overdubs and more to do with stream of consciousness, and at the same time to be able to listen back and live with what went down. It took time for me to really feel like I had control of the gear and my body – like, stepping onto a pedal while balancing my weight so I don’t fuck up the pitch I am playing as I record into a loop. There were many things which were not intended when I was first working with this pedal set-up and being in a live situation I couldn’t just stop and start over, I had to live with what happened, and listen to what possibilities could fit with what I just did.

– I learned the most about what was possible from so many shows and situations where what I intended to do got fucked up and was surprised with a new possibility I didn’t think of. Eventually, there was a new vocabulary of techniques that got added to what I could make use of when improvising live and I felt ready to start recording. I had a couple of weeks of tour, recorded shows and so the names of the cities or clubs where the tracks were recorded are on the album. Except for the piano piece and one track which I had to overdub, guitar and theremin. Now, I just feel strange about selling that album because it is old for me and sounds nothing like the live shows these days.

Hva kan vi forvente av Pamelia Kurstin på scenen under Safe as Milk?

– I try not to even think about or make any expectations for myself before a gig, just so I don’t set myself up for disappointment which could totally sabotage a clear-headed improv. There are moments it can seem orchestral or like church organs or twinkling stars or rolling up a burrito.

– I’m more curious to hear what the audience thinks of what comes out afterwards!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s