In the arts, technology, or any other realm, Japanese culture encourages taking one’s chosen pursuits to the limits, even when their material comes from other cultures. We have here a particularly notable example in the form of Mandarin Electron, a musical ensemble founded and led since 1999 by pioneer Japanese theremin player Masami Takeuchi. But its members (273 of whom set the theremin-ensemble Guinness World Record with the performance of “Amazing Grace” above) don’t play quite the same touchless, spooky-sounding instrument vintage electronic music fans would recognize; instead, they master the Matryomin, a theremin in the compact form of a traditional Russian Matryoshka doll, conveniently designed “so as to disseminate theremin performance.”
The combination isn’t quite as random as it sounds. Back in 2015 we posted about the history of the theremin, which goes back to the work of a Russian inventor named Léon Theremin. When he first developed the instrument in 1919, he called it the Aetherphone, and in the 1920s demonstrated it in Europe and the United States.
In the decades thereafter, Theremin’s strange new musical invention captured imaginations all over the world, and last year Japan celebrated the inventor’s 120th Birthday with a series of events called Theremin 120 — most of them somehow involving Takeuchi. You can learn more about his history with the theremin and its homeland from the video just above.
In a sense, Takeuchi, who moved to Russia to study under Theremin’s relative and pupil Lydia Kavia, has realized the inventor’s original vision for his “instrument of a singing-voice kind.” Freeing its sounds from their mid-2oth-century Western associations — drive-in horror movies, novelty surf-rock — he has overseen their transformation into the elements of an electronic chorus. You can purchase your very own Mandarin Electron-made Matryomin (now on its third-generation model) and start learning to play it with the video just above, but if its potential still escapes you, have a look at Takeuchi and his ensemble’s extensive collection of tour and media appearances. If the sound and sight of hundreds of people all tuning their Matryoshka-doll theremins at once doesn’t intrigue you, nothing could.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.