Dame Electric: Dorit Chrysler

By Mia Wendel-DiLallo


Organizer of the September 14, 2016 Dame Electric festival, Dorit Chrysler is perhaps best known as a virtuoso theremin player (or “theremin goddess,” if you will.) She has placed a spotlight on the often-sidelined instrument in her own mesmerizing performances, and through the projects she helms such as the New York Theremin Society and KidCoolThereminSchool. In honor of her one-day festival, Roulette had the pleasure of asking Dorit about her history in the musical world, how she happened upon the forlorn theremin, and what led her to the empowering line-up of Dame Electric.

MWD: What is the motivation behind the Dame Electric festival?

DC: I wanted to see strong, hands-on females operating analog synthesizer machines and producing their own original sounds on stage. Not surprisingly, there are many women represented in the field of analog synthesis, but they are not featured and celebrated often enough. Headliner and pioneer legend Suzanne Ciani’s story is a good example of her struggle in a male dominated field, and to this day not enough women are building their own hardware such as Antenes.

I saw Suzanne Ciani perform at Namm Fair two years ago. The day featured a list of several performers, but Suzanne stood out like a gleaming light, connecting with the Diodes in such a personal, unassuming, professional, and extraordinary musical way. Her performance and craft inspired the idea for “Dame Electric” and we are so thrilled to bring her to New York and to have her headline the festival at Roulette. It turns out, she has not performed a solo concert on her Buchla here since 1975! Congruently, Suzanne has a documentary coming out about her life — a fascinating story about what it is like to be a woman in this new field of a male-dominated analog and synth world. As part of the Dame Electric festival, there will also be a short preview of the upcoming film, to be screened at the Austrian Cultural Forum on Tuesday, September 13th.

Antenes and Electric Indigo will collaborate for the first time together, opening for Suzanne Ciani at Dame Electric. Antenes (Lori Napoleon), builds her own synthesizers inspired by outmoded technologies, including using old patch telephones in her work. Electric indigo is an Austrian performer working with granular synthesis. She has founded an internationally growing network called female:pressure, that collects statistics of representation of woman in electronic music. They will also hold workshops on synth building and granular synthesis at Pioneer Works on September 17th.

While thinking about the festival, I kept in mind the idea of nurturing the community. So, I paired Austrian artists, that are flown in for the festival, with local artists. Each will collaborate with a chosen partner, featuring premieres of new works that leave comfort zones and push boundaries.

MWD: Can you talk about performing at a young age and how you got started?

DC: I was a child performer. I have been on the stage since the age of seven at the local opera house in my Austrian hometown. The colorful world of props and drama, orchestra and ballet, and paper-maché and stucco, was all so exciting and inspiring to me. At the age of ten I sang twelve tone music by Alban Berg with a fake hunchback on by back in Woyzeek — who would not want to be a musician/performer after that?

MWD: How did you discover the theremin?

DC: I was in New York playing guitar and singing in a band called Halcion. A friend of mine, Lary 7, has a wild collection of assorted analog instruments at his house, and he took me to a corner where a theremin stood, that he was repairing and he demonstrated it to me. It was a life-changing experience and I can’t thank him enough for introducing me to this instrument. I felt the theremin deserved much more attention than it had previously gotten. I had studied musicology and was intrigued by its odd history and status in the pantheon of musical instruments. It was a challenge to explore the theremin and to see what it was capable of.

MWD: What is the “odd history” of the theremin?

DC: Léon Theremin invented the TermenVox in 1919. It was the first electric music instrument  featuring a unique new interface that allowed it to be played without touching anything — waving hands in electromagnetic fields based on the heterodyne system. Theremin was a prodigy of Lenin, and the termenvox fit perfectly into the Russian Revolution, and was even featured in several soundtracks for promotional movies. Theremin was sent on tour to represent Russian technical accomplishments across the globe.

After touring in Europe, he settled in New York. His theremin patent was produced by RCA, and the instruments were promoted as easy to play at home —which was of course proved wrong. Production had also gone quickly into debt after the market crashed. Theremin himself married Lavinia Williams, one of the members of the first African-American ballet troupe in New York. Then, all of a sudden, he disappeared one day. Maybe he was kidnapped by the KGB, or maybe he returned to Russia voluntarily. He ended up working in a secret science prison camp where he developed the brand new technology of listening devices, the BUG, to be installed in a seal that hung behind the desk of the American ambassador in Moscow. This allowed the Russians to listen in to conversations until the British discovered a signal — this very seal was held up at a meeting at the UN when the Cold War was declared.

Theremin’s absence in the U.S. stopped the growing popularity of the instruments and efforts of contemporary composers writing for it. Some popularity occurred in the 1950s, when Hollywood used its signature sounds for horror and suspense themes such as The Day the Earth Stood Still or Hitchcock’s Spellbound. To this day the theremin is still gravely underestimated as a musical instrument and has not been able to establish itself in either popular or classical music. Due to its unusual interface, that differs gravely with traditional sound production, a theremin is not easy to play, and whoever has witnessed a theremin producing noise might think that this is all it can do. Platforms such as the NY Theremin Society and KidCoolThereminSchool (which I founded) help the instrument find greater popularity.

MWD: What do you love most about working with the theremin?

DC: What keeps me engaged with this unique device is its extraordinary dynamic capacity — unparalleled by any other music instrument. You enter micro-space and learn more about your own body, just by playing. It’s physicality is revealed through the slightest movement of your hand. You can literally sculpt the notes with your own hands, shaping sound this way. I love this primal directness of motion and sound, its drama and the ultimate challenge of attempting to control it — that impossibility appeals to me! It’s like fighting windmills…