History can catch at things and mess them around. Take the theremin – a serious instrument, reduced to a circus trick, with a story that reads like a map of twentieth-century aspirations and follies. Early days were heady: born from Russian security research, Léon Theremin’s electronic instrument was quickly diverted to more high-minded classical music uses: mostly summoning up the sounds of the ethereal spheres for mystically-minded intellectuals. Now? The gimmick tray. Its “woo-woo” glissandi are used to evoke gimcrack spookiness, or as a quick and flashy shorthand for psychedelic derangement.
Worse – on half of those occasions when you’re assured that you’re actually hearing a theremin (Good Vibrations, the original ‘Star Trek’ theme, early Portishead) what you’re actually hearing is a forgery. Based on motion detectors and on hands that aren’t allowed to touch anything, the genuine instrument is tougher to play than a greased fiddle. Hence (for those who want a quick route to the theremin sound without the sweat, physicality and sheer involvement of playing one) the slew of knock-off devices and plug-ins available for faking the flitter.
It’s all a little sad. Despite the efforts of a distinguished handful of composers (not least Shostakovich and Miklós Rózsa) the theremin passed quickly from being the sound-of-the-future to becoming a sonic trinket and a source of freaky icing – all via pop culture, counterfeitery and the Cold War. You could scarcely blame Léon Theremin if he were spinning in his grave (sounding a heavenly wavering burble of rage as he did so). Hearing a theremin played in a way that’s even slightly close to the original intent is something of a rarity these days. While he’s not exactly a purist, Cihan Gülbudak (better known as Meczûp) clearly takes his own theremin seriously enough to steer it back to roots-level.
On ‘Hanging From The Purgatory’s Pendulum’, Meczûp’s theremin is accompanied only by its own looped signals, and sometimes by a gauzy, delicate brushing of fuzz-noise shrouding the pure tone in a gentle, finely-milled distortion. Mostly, though, Meczûp suspends the instrument in wide space, sending its sliding, sustained tones out as a majestic keen. His control is exemplary, mastering the air-shaping swoops and pinches necessary to pull away from plain electronic tone and towards intimations of strings, pipes and carefully torn air. Where a little more flex is required there’s a whammy-pedal available, heaving the pitches up and down in tidal zooms, and giving the music the apocalyptic boom of a Messaien organ-blast.
Besides the skill of Meczûp’s fingertips, the other key ingredient in his work is locale. Based in Istanbul, he sits at the historic conceptual crossroads of East and West. Seemingly setting aside contemporary blendings of globalization and cyberculture, his music taps into older frictions and fertilizations. There’s an old-fashioned sense of discovery here. Geographies slide across each other and voices strain to mingle, from the earnestly mangled English of the song titles to the cross-sifting of the musical impulses. Throughout the album, echoes of the classical European yearn-to-order meet intimations of Eastern devotional. Despite Meczûp’s classic theremin technique his musical lines don’t have the chilly ethereality of the original approach. They sound more like ney flutes, duduks or zurnas – Middle Eastern wind instruments with their own connection to Sufi, shamanism and oral histories; to the angelic and diabolic aspects of spiritual experience; or the difficult memories of the region’s blood-mottled sway between the heights of civilization and the depths of brutality and pain. There are notes of beauty and agony here, calling up more than a few old ghosts.
At its most basic, Meczûp’s music sounds predominantly Eastern (the brief Arabic piping of Shadow: A Parable) but the musical crossings-over are far more interesting. Beneath the long whining melodies that cap and guide A Tale For Lancinant Screws, a kind of slender and abbreviated suggestion of Renaissance counterpoint emerges. It’s less an outright structure than a kind of haunting, like the image of a face flattened out across an endless carpet. A similar device haunts The Ribald Genie, ghosting underneath a lonely melody which gradually alters from pure keen to distorted scream and finally to a melancholy sarangi moan. For the brief but wide-ranging Garoun A, more of these suggestions blur into whalesong glissandi: a succession of theremin voices from teetering soprano to slithering sub-bass chase each other before tailing off into echoes.
Meczûp’s sharp appreciation of lines of beauty dominates the record, although at points this is deliberately overstretch to the point of breakdown. On Puriest Morning of All Times, baroque intimation destroys its own bounds: a vaulting lead melody (first soprano, then alto) strides downwards into echo-space before more parts build into a looping, uneasy fugue. As it moves on, the theremin sound begins to rip and degrade, eventually becoming a mass of gargling sharp-edged rattles like a rockslide or a Geiger counter. Blossoming in Cemetery sits between Bach liturgy and Armenian lament, maintaining an ache and yearn for six minutes before the theremin’s translucent cloak of distortion cracks and dissolves, and the melody starts to reiterate as a scabrous insect buzz.
In spite of his austere tendencies, Meczûp allows a little fantasy into the mix for a couple of pieces, drawing on and transforming pinches of popular culture. The first of these is Kwaidan, rooted in Japanese ghost tales via Lafcadio Hearn and cinema. Relinquishing the counterpoint which informs the rest of the record, it brings out more of the Eastern melodies while walls of looped theremin churn in the background, fluttering and stuttering on a grand scale.
The second is The Bridge of Khazad-dûm – an etiolated isolationist drone which becomes perhaps the most powerful work on an album already full of grand-scale intimations. It takes its inspiration from Tolkien: specifically, that chasm-spanning subterranean stone bridge which (at a key point in ‘Lord of the Rings’) becomes a locus for death, despair and ruin. Meczûp interprets another aspect, capturing something of Tolkien usually drowned under torrents of merchandising: his valedictory quality, the way his stories shuffle and re-deal the racked old bones of history, romance and inevitable decay for one final mournful hurrah. Meczûp’s vision of the bridge is of an ancient, significant place deserted. Plangent teary layers of theremin fuse together, cold spaces emerge in the music, and entwined senses of antiquity and abandonment are caught in broad view.
In fact, this sense of stricken grandeur applies equally to the rest of the album. Meczûp’s eerie, assertive picking-over and teasing-out of elements within of his music feels like a week spent immersed in history. It has the same tasting of triumphs and fleeting beauty; the same dawning feeling that one somehow fits into something so much broader and complicated. Through it all, the theremin rises triumphant. Survival and vindication.
Meczûp: ‘Hanging From The Purgatory’s Pendulum’
BFW Recordings, BFW038 (no barcode)
Released: 1st March 2010