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Katica Illényi: Building Bridges with the Theremin

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

Saggini: How does the theremin fit into your shows? How does the audience react?

Illenyi: Several years ago, the theremin became a part of my concerts. Because it is so popular with audiences, concert organizers often ask me to include theremin pieces in my violin performances. Watching someone play the theremin on stage is like witnessing a miracle.

Saggini: I saw that you played The Swan with an original RCA Theremin. How did you find it in terms of playability and timbre? Was it easy to switch from the Etherwave to the RCA?

Illenyi: Switching from the Etherwave to the RCA is like changing from the violin to a contrabass. The distance between the notes was so much longer than on my Moog theremin, making it necessary for me to practice a bit more on the RCA, which was not at all easy. I only had about an hour to practice before the concert. Once on stage, I had to concentrate very hard to hit the right notes in the air and to stay in tune. The loop antenna worked fabulously. The volume range was very sensitive, and it worked fantastically! For the first time in my life, I could make real music thanks to the dynamics on that 90-year-old theremin! That was a joy that I have never experienced on any other theremins.

Saggini: So would a replica of the RCA Theremin approach the concert theremin you have in mind?

Illenyi: I think an RCA theremin would not be suitable or appropriate for today’s musical expectations.

Saggini: How do you choose the pieces to be included in your repertoire for theremin?

Illenyi: When I perform on the theremin, I like to choose classical pieces, popular tunes, or songs from famous movie soundtracks because, in my opinion, people enjoy hearing well-known melodies. I also like to play opera arias. The theremin can imitate the human voice, and I can play such long phrases that no singer would ever be able to sing. That is very inspiring for me.

Saggini: And if you had to commission a composer for a new piece for theremin, what indications would you give her/him?

Illenyi: Recently, I get made a theremin concerto with a very talented young Hungarian composer. Since the technical issue is complicated by the fact that theremin is a monophonic instrument, which makes it significantly different from other instruments that are polyphonic, I had to explain to the composer what we could play on this particular instrument and point out its limitations. These elements impact the kind of melodies, phrases, and rhythms that are playable, as well as what is impossible to play. Before he began to compose, I discussed a lot of technical things with him, too.

In the end, he composed a very melodic theremin concerto consisting of 3 movements. I can’t wait to perform it one day. His style is similar to John Willams’ music, and I love his compositions. At my request, the 2nd movement includes a resounding, beautiful Hungarian folk song.

Saggini: This is very exciting. Can you tell us more about it? Besides the theremin, what are the other instruments for which the score has been written? How long does the piece last? Who is the composer? And when can we listen to it?

Illenyi: The composer is a good friend of mine, a very talented young Hungarian musician called Rezső Ott, who plays many instruments professionally. The Concerto for Theremin and Orchestra consists of 3 movements and was written for theremin & symphony orchestra. 2 flutes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 bass trombone, harp, timpani, and strings. The piece is about 20-25 minutes long.

You asked me when the audience can listen to it? To be honest, I really don’t know. World it totally upside down nowadays. Nobody can tell what the future brings. Concert organizers can not plan recently. The only thing that I can do is to master my theremin part as well as I can and wait. Yes, I am waiting for that memorable day. The day of the Theremin Concerto’s premiere that was written for me. Hope to see you all there!

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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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