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The Theremin Journey of Eric Ross

Eric Ross at De Ijsbreker Amsterdam Netherlands. Magazine cover photo by Mary Ross. 2003
Eric Ross at De Ijsbreker Amsterdam Netherlands. (Magazine cover photo by Mary Ross, 2003)

Saggini: In the demonstrations carried out during his European tour in 1927 and then in those in the United States, Léon Theremin presented a device capable of associating colors to notes played on the theremin. I read that you have done something like this and that you happen to visualize music as colors. Are you a synaesthete? Can you tell us about these experiences?

Eric Ross with Visible Light display by Jim Kuzma at the International Cultural Center in Antwerp Belgium. Photo by Mary Ross 1980
Eric Ross with Visible Light display by Jim Kuzma at the International Cultural Center in Antwerp Belgium. (Photo by Mary Ross, 1980)

Ross: I see color as mood relationships associated with different musical keys. In 1980s, I toured with a Visible Light display which had a color per key over 8 Octaves. We referenced Scriabin’s color cycle and set up the note color relationships as he suggested, E was red, C was yellow, and so on. Theremin glissandi produced beautiful rainbow effects.

Mary Ross’s works in this area were most important for me. Her sense of color composition in photos and video led me to color as sonic form, shape, nuance, abstraction in non-linear and non-sequential developments with electro-acoustic musical palettes.

Saggini: Speaking of this, I’d like you to tell us about the artistic relationship with your wife, Mary Ross. Together you created rich multimedia events during which your music was accompanied by projections of videos and slides made with pioneering video synthesis technologies. And there were dancers on stage. How did you do all this? Did you start from a common concept? Were music and images created organically, hand in hand? Did Mary draw inspiration from your music after it was composed to create an event that would enhance its public performance?

6 Eric and Mary Ross Ultimedia Concept Poster. Photo Mary Ross. 2010
Eric and Mary Ross Ultimedia Concept Poster. (Photo by Mary Ross, 2010)

MARY ROSS (1950-2012) was an art photographer and visual artist. She has received a New York State and National Endowment for the Arts Awards in dance, film, video. Her works have been featured in hundreds of multimedia performances with composer Eric Ross. She has exhibited in magazines, galleries, and museums in the United States, Europe, Israel, and Japan, and her works are in permanent collections such as Kunsthaus, Zurich; International Polaroid Collection; Herbert Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University; King’s Library, Copenhagen; Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; Musee Arles, France, and Lincoln Center Library Dance in New York. A “Pioneer of Digital Photography,” Mary Ross’s archive is located at the Rose Goldsen Center for New Media Art at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, and LIMA in Amsterdam, NL.

Ross: Mary and I started working together in the 1970s.  We first used live and pre-recorded video in my Songs for Synthesized Soprano (Op. 19). There was immediate synergistic energy to our combined work. Mary wrote, “In 1976, I began to use video in live multimedia performances in collaboration. Since then, I have produced pre-recorded materials which are designed, composed, and edited to his music. These pieces, with accompanying video stills and digital images, have been displayed and projected as he performed concerts of his music worldwide. I wanted to create a parallel in the music to the video, which would reflect and comment upon the action in different, distant, and often remote ways. I like to set up contrasts with the music and images on the screen – fast when slow, bright when dark, dense when sparse – to create unexpected relationships and meanings. Eric’s music has led me deeper into this non-literal, non-narrative form. Musically there are specific themes for some parts and other sections open to improvisation. In performance, the music and the emotional relationship to the video, which is fixed, is ever-changing depending upon time, place, and mood.”

”In the 1980s and 90s, we performed in major venues in the US and Europe. We performed in big rooms like the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, Helsinki Jazz Festivals. At Montreux JazzFest in Switzerland, we had 24 large screens displaying Mary’videos at the Palais de Congres.

We also did concerts in smaller intimate rooms like the mirrored ICC in Antwerp, De Ijsbreker and Montevideo in Amsterdam, Louisiana Museum in Copenhagen, and Edvard Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway.

Eric Ross at Edvard Munch Museum Oslo Norway Photo Mary Ross 1980
Eric Ross at Edvard Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway. (Photo by Mary Ross, 1980)

Mary’s work evolved steadily. She was a darkroom printer in black-and-white and color film and other media, including gum bichromate, silkscreen, and Polaroid. She saw video processing as an extension of the technical possibilities of printmaking or an “electronic darkroom.” She included slide dissolves and video during this period. She said, “The video synthesizer functioned as a type of electronic darkroom. My own slides, negatives, prints, movie film, and videotapes provided source material.” At a certain point, technique and aesthetic merged and became intuitive.

The question “Which came first: the music or the video?”  Basically, We’d work simultaneously and then, at a certain point of progress, would come together for editing sessions. From that point on, we would stay in close collaboration. Mary preferred to edit to my music – I would give her track to edit to, and then I would orchestrate the final versions for “mixdown.” Other times she would work alone on a piece until it was nearly complete, and then I would compose music to it. We were open to different approaches, and each piece was shaped up differently. Our works were never experimental – we knew exactly what we wanted in each piece and worked to get it right. 

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