German virtuoso thereminist Carolina Eyck made her debut with the Berlin Philharmonic at the age of 15 and never looked back.

“It’s really hard to know where your notes are in the air,” German theraminist Carolina Eyck tells me. The theremin, whose ethereal electronic sound is often associated with ’40s and ’50s science fiction and horror films, was first unveiled by Russian physicist Léon Theremin in 1920. The instrument relies on an electromagnetic field, manipulated by the player’s hand movements – and is therefore the only instrument played without physical contact from the musician.

Eyck came across the theremin for the first time when she was young. “I started to play the piano when I was five and the violin when I was six,” she says. “Then the theremin came to our house when I was seven.”

“My parents – especially my dad – were playing electronic music,” she explains. “They had all these old Moog synthesisers.”

Thereminist Carolina Eyck, all photos by Christian Hüller

After a friend told them about the theremin, Eyck’s parents went out and bought one. “They realized that it’s not super easy to play and you have to have time to practice,” explains Eyck, “so they gave it to me to try out. I had lessons when I was very young with the grand-neice of the inventor, Lydia Kavina.”

Finding a teacher had been difficult – “I think Lydia was the only one,” Eyck says. “The theremin was not so popular yet” – but Moscow-based Kavina, who had begun learning the instrument from Léon Theremin himself when she was nine years old, would come to Germany occasionally for concerts. “I had like one or two lessons per year,” says Eyck. “So I mainly started to think about how I could adapt things from other instruments to the theremin.”

Kavina got Eyck started on the basic techniques for playing the theremin. “You have a specific hand position,” she tells me. “You make a circle with your thumb and index finger and then you go from there to positions where you open your hand. Back then she taught me five positions and picked the pieces which were suitable for the instrument.”

The theremin, particularly the more primitive instrument Eyck had as a child, came with a set of challenges. “It took me so long to play in tune,” says Eyck. “The feel of the instrument is not linear – and not even non-linear – if you know what I mean. On the violin string, the higher you go the smaller the distances get between notes – and on most instruments that’s the case – but the instrument I had when I was young, it was all over the place.”

When Eyck was 14 she got a new instrument, which opened up a host of new possibilities and allowed the young thereminist to build on the technique Kavina had passed down to her. “It was the last thing that Robert Moog built before he died,” she says. “And thank god they made it.”

“On the new instrument, the distances between notes are all the same,” she says – this allowed her to develop her own eight-position theremin technique – but for Eyck, the new instrument still isn’t perfect. “It has a more synthetic sound,” she says. “I would love to develop the instrument further. But it’s so much more playable – it’s much easier to play with expression.”

Few music schools or conservatories have a theremin department, so how do you develop a career as thereminist?  “I played in concerts from a very young age,” says Eyck. “My dad supported me a lot. He and my mum looked for concerts for me to play. But I never thought of doing something else – some other career – I’m so together with this instrument.”

Eyck made her debut with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2002 and has since been invited to perform in festivals and concerts around the world. One of her personal highlights was performing a concerto written especially for her. “I asked a Finnish composer, Kalevi Aho, to write a theremin concerto for me in 2010,” she said, “because I really liked his music. I wrote to him in Finland, and he said, ‘Yeah, sure, I want to write for the theremin.’”

The concerto, titled Acht Jahreszeiten (eight seasons), was performed in Finnland and recorded with the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, conducted by John Storgårds. The disc, which also featured Aho’s Horn Concerto, won the 2015 Echo Klassik award for Concert Recording of the Year (20th/21st century music). “It turned out so, so beautiful,” says Eyck, “and I think still the hardest piece today for the theremin.”

Given its relative obscurity – not to mention its unique technical demands – it can be difficult to find composers willing to write for the instrument. “Sometimes I think with the theremin, either you completely like it or you don’t like it at all,” says Eyck. “You just have to find somebody who likes it and sees all the possibilities. Because there are so many possibilities – you can create such a wide range of colours and soundscapes.”

As a player, Eyck knows these possibilities intimately, and took full advantage of them in a recording she made with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, titled Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet. “I composed the string quartet parts and then I improvised on the theremin on top. So on this album especially there’s a wide range of sound possibilities.”

Eyck comes to Australia in January, performing in Hobart with pianist Jennifer Marten-Smith and guitarist Jim Moginie – of Midnight Oil fame – as part of MONA FOMA. The first half of her performance will feature classical works transcribed for theremin. “Fauré, I think, and maybe Rachmaninov and Ravel,” she says, “composers who have not written for the theremin. Their cello pieces and violin pieces suit the theremin very well.” The second part of the concert will be jazz standards. “I love to improvise,” Eyck says. “With improvisation you can be so free. We’ll combine some jazz songs with improvisations.”

Eyck has become something of an ambassador for the theremin, having published her own method book and instructional YouTube videos. She says there is increasing interest in the instrument. “It has grown – and not just people who want to play around, give it a try, and then leave it in the corner – I now have students who are classically trained and play in big orchestras on other instruments.”

“We try to show people that there are possibilities beyond horror movies,” she says. “Sometimes it’s fun to play a horrific melody, but not always.”

So what advice does she have for someone wanting to learn the theremin? “Buy a good instrument, take some advice in the beginning, and have fun with it,” she says. “Play around and enjoy the instrument which you don’t touch.”

Carolina Eyck performs at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art as part of MONA FOMA, January 20 – 21