Interview with Avant-Garde Jazz Composer/Thereminist-Eric Ross
One Final Note, Vol. 10
Eric Ross is an accomplished composer and performer. A multi-talented musician, he plays piano, guitar, synthesizers, and is a master of the theremin, one of the first electronic music instruments. He's performed his music at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, Newport Jazz Festival, Montreux, Switzerland, and Berlin Jazz Festivals, Brussels Palais des Beaux Arts, Copenhagen New Music Festival, and Gilmore International Keyboard Festival among many others worldwide. For over twenty years he's led his own ensemble which has featured jazz giants John Abercrombie, Larry Coryell, Andrew Cyrille, Oliver Lake, Leroy Jenkins, New Music Virtuosos Youseff Yancy, Lydia Kavina, and Robert Dick among others.
Julie Pinsonneault June 2002
J.P.: Tell us about your work with the Theremin.
ERIC: " I first started playing the Theremin around 1976. I had some engineer friends put one together from a kit for me. I quickly realized it was a difficult instrument to play well. With work, by 1982, I was able to use it on my first solo album, "Songs for Synthesized Soprano". I took a soprano voice , put it through a Moog Model III Synthesizer, and did electronic and classic tape studio manipulations on it. I backed the voice with different electronic and acoustic instruments including synthesizers, Balinese and Javanese gamelan, bassoon, percussion, guitar, trumpet, prepared piano and Theremin. The objective of the Soprano Songs was to portray complex and varying psychological moods and states of being. The processed voice was used as timbre, color, texture and for its emotive and expressive qualities. The entire cycle of songs was unified by the presence of derivations from a single tone row. The album was released on Doria Records, a small NYC jazz label. I think the Theremin was partly responsible for its success. At that time, the Theremin was quite rare in modern music. I wasn't using it for traditional violin or operatic transcriptions or pop music but in a contemporary avant-garde style. This album enabled me to meet a lot of people in music. One of them was jazz trumpeter and thereminist, Youseff Yancy. He'd worked with Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, James Brown, among others. We began a long collaboration including performances at Lincoln Center and the Berlin Jazz Festival. Also in 1982, I met and became friends with the great virtuoso of the Theremin , Clara Rockmore. She felt the Theremin was a serious instrument, not just a fad or a gimmick. I try to maintain that respect and attitude myself. I tried to stop by and see her whenever I was in New York. She played for me a number of times in her apartment and was an absolutely amazing player. At one point, she asked me to write a Concerto for her. I wanted to write a large double concerto with her and I playing two different Theremin parts, with orchestral accompaniment. Youseff Yancy and I later played parts of this Concerto at Lincoln Center. In 1991, I met and played for Professor Lev Theremin , during the making of Steven Martin's film, "The Electronic Odyssey". While they filmed us, I set up and played my instrument for him through my wah-wah pedal. That really got his attention as he had never heard that before He tried it himself. He also told me he planned to build a polyphonic Theremin. He was a very creative and forward thinking man. These artists inspired me to keep using the Theremin as a voice in my own compositions. I've used it in all my major compositions since the '80s and will continue to do so.
J.P.: What about your Theremin Summit CD?
ERIC: I was invited to play on the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1997. I knew that dramaturgically they wanted something to close out the festival pointing the way towards the future. I called Youseff Yancy, who now lives in Brussels, and asked him to play with me. We used his group from Brussels to back us up. I knew that Russian Thereminist Lydia Kavina was in Germany around then too and I asked her to perform with us on a couple of my pieces. The concertwent very well. The audience really enjoyed and appreciated it. The International Herald Tribune did a feature and we got great reviews by the media in Europe, USA and Japan. When I got back to New York, I listened to the tapes and thought it would be nice to put some additional tracks and players in the mix. I used the entire Berlin concert and added parts from concerts in Belgium, Holland, Norway, Germany , New York,and elsewhere. It took lot of time and work. But I'm very pleased with the results. I think it's the favorite of all my recorded works.
J.P.: How is it different from your Mars2Earth CD?
ERIC: That was a totally different concept. I got a call from Vito Ricci and Byard Lancaster, two musicians who were in my groups back in the '80s. They wanted to put together a project with percussionist Toshi Makihara and myself for a CD release in Philadelphia. The concept was to do an improvisational album. We set up in the studio in Philly. No rehearsals, no charts, nothing. I knew we could play together but what none of us expected was the really great chemistry. We played straight through for an hour and fifteen minutes or so with no breaks, edits or retakes. The music is very flowing, and intuitive.The engineers did a superb recording. Dreambox Media put out the CD basically just as we played it.
J.P.: Didn't you also do a piece once for 14 Theremins?
ERIC: I was Master Teacher at a Theremin Festival a few years ago. I had several students ranging from beginners to some semi-pro players. I wanted to do a piece that we could all perform together in a live concert situation. I wrote a piece with some rather difficult solo parts for Lydia Kavina and myself and some easy ensemble parts for the students to play. We rehearsed for a few days. For the concert, I spread the players out all around the auditorium, because Theremins can cause interference with each other if they're too close together. I conducted them from the stage and played my Theremin, guitar, piano and synths. My son Steven, who was then 9, and Johnny Reinhart played soprano and alto recorders, and John Snyder played digeredoo and waterphone. The students were naturally quite nervous about performing in public. I told them to keep their eyes on me as the conductor and concentrate on the music. They did a fine job. Somebody said it was a world's record for the most Theremins performing together since Professor Theremin's "Monster Concerts" in the 1930's. I don't know , that wasn't my intention. I wanted to make a piece that we could all play and that would sound good. The piece was pretty low volume and low velocity in terms of notes until the end where there's a big crescendo and the Theremins kind of go wild on the last chord. It was a lot of fun and came off quite well.
J.P.: "What is your current stage set-up?"
ERIC: " My road rig varies but in the USA, I'm currently using a MIDI-Guitar Synthesizer which is synched to a bank of five synthesizers.. The guitar itself is a Casio PG-380, basically an Ibanez Blade Strat, with customized neck, body, electronics, pickups, switching, etc. so it's set up the way I want. I run it through several effects units . I'll also use my '72 Gibson SG, or a Les Paul , Gibson 335 or occasionally a Fender Strat. I prefer Steinways or Bosendorfers 7 or 9 ft. Grand Pianos. I usually have the sustain pedal blocked down full so it catches all the overtones and long decays. I use three Theremins, each with their own effects loops. Theremin One is a customized Moog Etherwave. I run it through a multi- effects box with reverbs, distortion, filtering, long delays, amp and cab simulations. Theremin Two is a small custom built model run through a delay line, a vocoder, and a wah-wah pedal . Theremin Three is basically the same as Two but with different effect settings. I also use a vocal processor on my singing voice. On some pieces like "Music 4MR" (Op.35) or "Rimn Vornl"(Op.37) I sing and play all of my instruments. It's a matter of choreography , moving from one sound or instrument to another or playing them all at once, I think of it all as my own personnal orchestra. Then I can add other artists to enhance what I'm doing.
J.P.: "Do you see your music as an extension or continuation of the music that emerged in the 20th century?
ERIC: " I've drawn upon many sources: classical, jazz, blues, rock, non-Western, avant-garde, electronic, and other kinds of music, so there is continuity. But, at the same time, I've been interested in moving on and creating something new and different, something that's never been heard before.
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