Saggini: How you discovered the theremin, and what made you decide to learn to play it?
Illenyi: I will never forget that first night I viewed Clara Rockmore playing The Swan on the theremin on YouTube. At first, I didn’t notice that she was playing a musical instrument. I just wondered, “How can it be possible for somebody to sing in such a high pitch?” But then, I saw that she was moving her hands, and under the video, there was written the word “Theremin.” I googled it immediately. “What does the word theremin mean?” It turned out that it was a musical instrument. I got so excited that I couldn’t sleep for the whole night. I read everything that I found on the Internet about it, and the very next day, I went to buy a theremin because I was 100% sure that I would be able to learn this musical instrument. Because I play the violin and I sing, too, and the theremin sounds like a human voice or a string instrument, I instantly fell in love with it.
Saggini: Are you self-taught, or did you have a teacher?
Illenyi: In Hungary, no one plays or teaches the theremin, so at the beginning I had no teacher and was helpless. I remember after I bought the theremin and it arrived, I did not even know how to put the device together, and I did not know that a theremin needs about a half of an hour to warm up. There were a lot of things that I had to experience and discover for myself. I did not know the finger positions or how to tune a theremin.
At first, I decided not to think too much about the techniques. I just wanted to make music, to play music, and to entertain myself. So, my method, which I’d recommend to anyone, was simple: I listened to the greatest opera singers and started to imitate them on the theremin. I did not care at all whether I was playing with a proper technique or not. The only thing that mattered was MUSIC! I didn’t finish practicing until I heard my music start to sound like a real singer. Every day I sat down to play it, and every day my playing improved. However, I knew that it would benefit me if I could find somebody from whom I could learn certain technical things. Later I contacted Carolina Eyck, and I visited her in Germany for a private lesson. She and Thierry Frenkel taught me the fundamentals.
Saggini: The idea of playing opera arias with the theremin reminds me, among others, of Peter Pringle. Can you tell us which are the three arias you prefer to play with theremin?
Illenyi: Puccini: “O mio babbino caro” which is a soprano aria from the opera Gianni Schicchi composed by Giacomo Puccini (this was the very first piece that I learned to play on the theremin). “Casta Diva” which is a soprano aria from the opera Norma composed by Bellini. “Una furtiva lagrima” which is a tenor aria from the opera L’elisir d’amore composed by Donizetti.
Saggini: How long did it take you to master the instrument?
Illenyi: I took about 25 individual theremin lessons altogether from Carolina Eyck, Thierry Frenkel, and Lydia Kavina. After I learned about its fundamental technological aspects, it was just a matter of time and practice until I was good enough to play it on stage. Truthfully, I don’t think that I will ever totally master to play the theremin because no one can ever really master any instrument. It is an endless journey of learning, practice, and development.
Saggini: Was there a thereminist who caught your attention in particular when you started?
Illenyi: My inspirations were Clara Rockmore, Carolina Eyck, and Lydia Kavina.