Calder sculptures play theremin in MoMA commissioned sound score by Chrysler

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, asked Berlin-based composer and sound artist Dorit Chrysler to create a piece of music using her preferred instrument, the theremin. Chrysler’s concept didn’t just involve writing a piece of music and then playing it on the instrument.

She brought in sculptures from Alexander Calder: Modern from the Start exhibit, not just as creative inspiration but as an actual part of her music score. Chrysler used the resulting sounds of Alexander Calder’s sculptures interacting with the theremin to create the music. 

“The theoretical synergy between Alexander Calder’s ever-changing mobiles, turning and shifting endlessly through the air, and the theremin’s antenna[e], ready to receive and translate into music the stimulus of any nearby moving object in the air, was irresistible.  As part of my MoMA sound commission, I recorded the interplay of sculpture and antenna[e] onsite at the MoMA, then returned to the studio to sort and manipulate the sounds, mixing them into finished compositions in the best tradition of musique concrète.”—Dorit Chrysler

Chrysler used two of Calder’s mobiles in the exhibition: Snow Flurry, I (1948) on display on the third floor at MoMA and Man-Eater with Pennants (1945) on view in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden outside. Made from iron, sheet metal and paint, Calder’s over-sized installation pieces are moveable much like actual mobiles that hang over a baby’s crib. 

Snow Flurry, I has white round pendants attached to a branch-like base and is displayed amongst giant iron carvings that resemble cave drawings come to life. The Man-Eater with Pennants sculpture is like something another modern artist Joan Miro would create on canvas, except this object was moving about in the MoMA sculpture garden.

Chrysler composed a sound piece for orchestra for the theremin, “performed” by Calder’s artworks. This layered, multi-movement piece of music, captured from live footage, is a chilling and captivating creation of nature, the air, through Calder’s sculptures as much as by Chrysler herself as composer. 

On an autumn evening in the museum sculpture garden, Chrysler began her work with MoMA conservators and art handlers to record the sounds and images of the metal sculptures interacting with the electromagnetic theremins. Chrysler preprogrammed a Moog Synthesizer 15 to play sounds to trigger a resonating response from the theremins.

Ghostly sounds emanate from the instruments without them being touched; laying on of hands, striking a key, banging, blowing or plucking of a string. Calder Plays Theremin is the resulting work created for orchestra from the film footage.

One of several theremins that Chrysler used to compose the work is called a Claravox, named after popular thereminist Clara Rockmore who visited the same MoMA Sculpture Garden to witness Bob Moog make his legendary public debut of the synthesizer in 1969. 

This seems to be the reason why the museum garden location was chosen for the recording of this work. It creates a connection between the three artists; Chrysler, Moog and Rockmore. It’s a moment in music history for Chrysler and a reminder of important events that happened on MoMA’s soil. Calder Plays Theremin cements Chrysler’s legacy among other notable musicians and artists who have already secured their place in popular culture. 

Chrysler’s piece is so unique in concept and execution that it could be considered ground-breaking. The work is mesmerizing from start to finish, in all four movements. In the first movement, Embrace, the protagonists meet each other for the first time in a bubbly, other worldly encounter. In the second movement, Fractals, each finds their own voice and communicates in a dialogue with the other like in a silent face-off from the score of an epic thriller. 

In the third movement, Brute, the Man-Eater with Pennants sculpture is, as MoMA describes it, “a powerful work that now quite forcefully interacts with the theremins, a dark and violent component emerges [in] a controversial musical moment, almost like a battle, a disagreement perhaps, underlined by storm and wind in the Sculpture Garden on the day of the filming, with the grand finale of a final clash, producing a visceral sound.” 

The aptly named fourth movement, Mesmerism, at once describes the mood in the air, the sound of the music, and the feeling the spectators in the room were invited to witness. The dialogue between Calder and theremin subsides in an urgent call and the imagination of the bystander goes wild, conjuring images of helicopter rescues on battlefields, the whizzing sound of oncoming ammunition. It’s as if someone asked nature to speak for the first time and she was telling the story of how she came to be and the things she has seen. 

As co-founder of the NY Theremin Society, Chrysler explores new ways to use the theremin and has pushed past boundaries with the creation of this piece. Her recent 2023 Austrian State Stipend in Composition award, in the country where she earned her musicology degree, further strengthens her credibility as an innovator in this genre and as a musician. 

She created Calder Plays Theremin back in 2021 and will celebrate the U.S. launch of her album of the work on vinyl and cassette on February 23 with a live, audio-visually aided performance. 

by Cherryl Bird – Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Twitter @ladycbird | Instagram @cherrylbird

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