If you want a look at the future of music, DeVotchKa might be a glimpse. On first hearing, you say, “hmmm, they sound sort of Eastern European … punk.” And then you realize they’re singing in Spanish. In fact, this band, which got an extra injection of popularity from the movie Little Miss Sunshine, is a hybrid Romani – Greek – Slavic – Spanish – Latin – Punk – Folk – Rock indie band that got its start playing burlesque.
What does this have to do with digital music creation? Because if technology is every going to escape being a novelty, best left to studio recording experts or electronic-specific niches, artists will first have to liberate electronic sound. That means, much as we love the Theremin being used as a Star Trek cover instrument, its repertoire will have to broaden, finally freed from its “sci-fi” trappings.
And does DeVotchKa’s Nick Urata ever liberate. He seamlessly blends Theremin sounds with the ensemble’s folk-tinged instrumentation, sometimes even playing the guitar and Theremin simultaneously. (It helps that the Theremin isn’t an instrument you have to touch.) This video will give you very little idea how good the results are; go see the band live if you can. (They conveniently showed up across the street from me for the last two nights here in New York, launching a new tour and the much-delayed release of their latest album, How it Ends, in Europe.)
DeVotchKa’s name, influenced by Russian, and their general aesthetic sensibilities, make the Theremin into something new: a Russian folk / punk rock instrument. You imagine Russians playing the Theremin for generations, nomadic Russian Jews and Gypsies playing Theremins around the campfire hundreds of years ago.
Last night’s highlight: a raucous, grungy burlesque-style solo on Theremin, as a limber leotard-clad aerial artist climbed bolts of cloth into the lofty heights of lower Manhattan’s Spiegeltent. Your first sign an instrument has soul is when it’s played in burlesque / by gypsies. (Just ask the piano and the violin. Seriously.) Impressively enough, the Theremin cuts through the sound of clamorous tuba, trumpets, guitars, strings, and drums. And if the Theremin can do it, there’s hope for the rest of synths and electronic sounds.