Theremin Musician Katica Illényi

When we reached out to musician Katica Illényi for an interview, she was incredibly receptive to answering our questions. We didn’t have room to include her complete answers in our print edition. But, we thought you would enjoy reading more about her!

We have edited a little for clarity, but otherwise left things just as she wrote them. 

Musician Katica Illényi sitting and holding a theremin

Photo: Katica lllényi courtesy IKP Music

Mirador Magazine (MM): What first attracted you to the theremin?

Katica Illényi (KI): I will never forget that first night I viewed Clara Rockmore playing The Swan on the theremin on YouTube. At first, I didn’t notice that she was playing a musical instrument. I just wondered, “How can it be possible for somebody to sing in such a high pitch?” But then, I saw that she was moving her hands, and under the video, there was written the word “Theremin.” I Googled it immediately. “What does the word theremin mean?” It turned out that it was a musical instrument. I got so excited that I couldn’t sleep for the whole night. I read everything that I found on the Internet about it, and the very next day, I went to buy a theremin because I was 100% sure that I would be able to learn this musical instrument. Because I play the violin and I sing, too, and the theremin sounds like a human voice or a string instrument, I instantly fell in love with it.

MM: I read that you have studied with Carolina Eyck. What do you admire about her playing style? 

KI: Carolina Eyck was my first theremin teacher. I went to Germany to take individual lessons from her. She is a very experienced music pedagogue. I admired her technique and creativity. We became good friends too.

Theremin Musician Clara Rockmore

Photo: Clara Rockmore plays an early version of the theremin. Wikicommons

MM: What other theremin musicians do you admire?

KI: My role model is Clara Rockmore. She is the “theremin icon” who inspires me.

I also love to listen to Samuel Hoffman’s playing. Clara and Samuel both were originally violinists. They think and play like violinists. That’s the reason I admire them the most. 

MM: I love that you play from soundtrack scores. How do your audiences react when they hear the Star Trek theme song played on the theremin? It’s so fun to hear played live! What other songs do audiences particularly like?

KI: Star Trek is one of my most popular pieces that I always play on stage. People just love it. And so do I! I think the music that my audience loves the best is Once Upon a Time in the West. Once my friends started to argue about it. The argument was about the original soloist of the music. One of my friends claimed that in a movie a woman was singing and the other said: “No, that must have been a theremin“. 

I was happy to see their conversation because I knew I did a good job. That means I could really imitate a singer on my theremin. 


MM: Alternatively, what type of music do you like to introduce to audiences? I first heard Hungarian music when I worked at Hungarian folk music and dance camp in California and I fell in love with it. Musicians play such an important part in bringing the world together, is this something that inspires your playing?

KI: Yes, exactly. You already answered the question! ☺ Music is a common language for all the people in the world and this is the best part of it.  Wherever I perform I love to see people’s reaction that is always the same. No matter what language they speak. No matter what kind of traditions or religion they follow. No matter how far I am from my homeland. Music awakens the same emotions in everybody’s soul.

I play several musical genres like classical, jazz, folk music, tango, gospel, etc.  I have a very colorful repertoire in my concerts and it would be hard to choose which kind of music I prefer. 

MM: What types of music or songs would you like to play on theremin but can’t because of its tonal or technical limitations?

KI: Since theremin is a singing instrument,  I am able to play almost everything that a singer can do. What I am not able to play is quickness. You can not play very quick melodies or fast runs on the theremin. 


MM: And, to flip that question — since the theremin can imitate the human voice, what do you like to play with the theremin that a human voice can’t do?

KI: The air never runs out! ☺ Its throat never hurts and a theremin never catches a cold. 


MM: This particular issue of our magazine has a theme of Sound and Space. Do you get a sense of the ethereal when you are playing music (theremin, violin, singing)? 

KI: Sometimes, yes. It can be very ethereal when I am playing the theremin. For instance, performing Star Trek is a fantastic ethereal experience. But I never have this feeling when I play the violin or sing. 

Photo: Leon Theremin with his musical invention

MM: What is the oldest theremin you’ve had the chance to play? What was it like?

KI: It was a 90-year old RCA theremin. Somebody invited me to the USA and wanted me to give a private concert on his RCA theremin in a theater that was in his private house. That was a very interesting adventure for me. The theremin sounded great and the volume antenna worked fantastically. However, the pitch range was only 4 and a half octaves. My theremin has 8 octaves. 

MM: And, finally, if you could have a chat with Leon Theremin, what would you ask him? 

KI: There is one point that would be very important to me and every fellow thereminist.  It would be great if a high quality, concert theremin could be invented.  An instrument on which we can express ourselves in a way many of us are capable of, but due to the technical limitations of the theremin, it is not possible. I’m sure if Leon were alive using today’s new technical possibilities he could easily develop all the limitations of the theremin. 

Visit KaticaIllenyi.com to learn more about her music, upcoming concerts and to shop for recordings.