Matryomin musicians belt out Beethoven for eerie anniversary concert

While the pandemic has wrought havoc in much of the performing arts world, it’s brought unexpectedly sweet music to the ears of Japanese musicologist Masami Takeuchi. Takeuchi is a teacher and inventor of something called the matryomin — a version of the exotic instrument played without physical contact, the theremin, which he adapted and downsized to fit inside a Russian nested doll. 

Theremin, which produce the eerie, quavery sound used in B-grade horror movies, the Beach Boys’ 1967 hit Good Vibrations and the Star Trek theme music, are played by hovering the hands near antennas to alter pitch and volume. (Matryomin have just one antenna for pitch control and are played single-handed.)

“It’s an extremely sensitive instrument,” Takeuchi told CBS News from his home about 100 miles southwest of Tokyo. “Moving the hand by just one millimeter changes the sound.”

Tribute to Beethoven and Theremin : ”For Elise – KISS MY EYES” by Matryomin ensemble “Mable and Da” by mandarinelectron on YouTube

Forced to cancel in-person ensemble classes as an anti-coronavirus measure, Takeuchi instead had his 26 students plug their instruments into smartphones and hit record. The result was a revelation. 

“With regular group lessons, you can’t discern individual sounds very well,” he said. “But being able to hear each person separately, I could tell if her pitch was a bit rough, or the articulation was off. So going online allowed me to get really granular with my instruction.”

Once the students had perfected their technique, he combined the 26 sound files, ran the mix through an amp and played it through speakers to re-record it with a regular microphone, to approximate a live performance. In decades of teaching, it was one of the cleanest student performances he’d ever heard. 

Members of the Japanese matryomin ensemble Mable and Da perform a virtual concert rendition of Beethoven’s Für Elise to mark the 100th anniversary of the theremin instrument, and the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, in a YouTube video produced and posted by Japanese musicologist Masami Takeuchi.  YouTube/Masami Takeuchi

“When theremin musicians perform in a group, extraneous noise is always a problem,” he explained, noting that the radio frequency oscillators of individual theremins have a bad habit of creating noise interference. “For the first time, we had a nice, clear concert. It reminded me of a human chorus.”

He uploaded the result — his students, all female, sporting Russian fur hats, wearing sober expressions as they appear to cast spells over their Russian matryoshka dolls to play a rendition of Beethoven’s Fur Elise — to mark both the theremin’s 100th birthday, and Beethoven’s 250th. (Watch, and listen, above.)

“Japan is an outlier in having so many women theremin musicians,” Takeuchi said. “Japan takes a lot of heat for gender discrimination, but in the theremin world, women dominate. They have more guts.”

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