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Katica Illényi: Building Bridges with the Theremin

Hungarian musician Katica Illényi playing the theremin during a show.
Katica Illényi playing the theremin during a show.

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.

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15 thoughts on “Katica Illényi: Building Bridges with the Theremin

  1. Ruth Zaballero says:

    Great interview with Katica Illenyi who plays the Theremin Instrument and about her music , also the Violin and how she went about playing these two instruments….Great photos and write up on Katica, thank you sir, so much for this I enjoyed this very much!

  2. Rick Saphire says:

    I was very pleased to read this educational and entertaining story about Katica Illenyi and her love for the Theremin. I am fortunate to be Personal Representative for Katica and we are working hard to someday, in the not too distant future, to be scheduling a theatrical tour for this talented lady here in the USA. Please visit http://www.Katica.us to enjoy her wonderful talents on the violin, her dancing, her singing, and of course her amazing skill with the Theremin. Rick Saphire.

  3. Christophe Becker says:

    Two years ago I sent two completely original in design theremin boards to St. Petersburg Russia. I am about to complete my last build with improvements. Yes better use of the volume control where the outside field is more aggressive than the inside or quieting near the loop. This final build is placed in an EtherWave Standard box, it also will end up somewhere in Russia. – To be decided http://www.oldtemecula.com/theremin/tw/phoenix-first-time2.wav

  4. Serje Zaslavsky says:

    Hi Christophe! The sound is so lovely! Great job! I live in Saint Peterburg and have been playing theremin since 2010. Do u still make this addition to Etherwave? I would love to have one. Please let me know!) All the best!

    • Christophe Becker says:

      I sent you a fb friend request for more info of what is in development. I have a private group where you know everyone. It was Valery Shamarin that gave me encouragement to keep advancing over the last 20 years.

  5. Bevan says:

    Great article! Really enjoyed that Valerio.
    Question: I have a Big Briar Series 91A that my mother used to play. I am, however looking to sell it. Could you give me any recommendations for listing this Theremin? Also, what would this unit approximately go for in today’s market? I can’t find any for sale anywhere for reference. Thank you sir!

  6. Valerio Saggini
    Valerio Saggini says:

    Hey Bevan! Thank you.

    As for the Big Briar Series 91A it is pretty rare . I can’t tell you exactly what is its market value although I suppose it could be around 3-4 K. But I could be wrong. It depends also on the conditions, of course. Do you have also the original diamond speaker? If you send me photos I will gladly publish them in the News section along with your description. By the way, I’m curious, what kind of music did your mother play with it?

  7. Bevan says:

    Thank you so much for the response Valerio! If by Diamond speaker, you are referring to an external speaker, then no. She always played it with just the internal speakers, or if in a large room, would connect to our PA system. We traveled as a family in a Christian ministry which conducted musical programs at various churches and venues. Mom would always play a sacred hymn on the theremin. Mom & Dad acquired their first theremin directly from Robert Moog in the late 60’s. (Wish I still had that one!) I took a few pics of the Big Briar 91A that we have. Where could I send them brother? Thanks my friend!

  8. DominionCinemas says:

    What an incredible interview with Katica Illényi! Her mastery of the theremin is truly mesmerizing, and I loved reading about her unique journey as a musician. The passion and dedication she brings to her craft is inspiring, and it’s evident in every note she plays. Thank you for sharing this fascinating insight into her world! Keep up the fantastic work, Theremin Vox!
    – Gary Ford

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