“Imagine if Marianne Faithful and Nikola Tesla had a love child with Jane Birkin as the nanny and Bjork as the wayward Girl Scout leader!” (Ann Magnuson of Paper Magazine about Dorit Chrysler).
Dubbed the “Theremin Queen” by Village Voice, Austrian-born Dorit Chrysler is hailed as one of the world’s most accomplished theremin players. I had the chance to meet her in an East Village café and chatted about Vienna, Arnold Schoenberg, Sachertorte, and of course the magical theremin…
Since 1928 – when the Russian Léon Theremin received a U.S. patent for an apparatus “embodying an electrical vibrating system” – the theremin, an instrument that’s played without being touched, has become associated in film soundtracks with arrivals from outer space or hair-tugging psychotics. In rock and pop, the theremin may add a touch of the avant-garde. For synth-pioneer Robert Moog, the instrument is where electronic music began.
Last week I was at Dorit Chrysler’s concert, which was presented by Performa at Chez André at the Standard, East Village. It was amazing! Recently she released an EP called “Avalanche”.
Chrysler: My wild student times. I studied musicology and journalism and communication science in Vienna.
Where did you hang out at that time in Vienna?
Chrysler: What’s the name of the place in the 4th district where they have the gypsy music?
Chrysler: I liked that quite a lot… and “Blue Box” in the 7th district.
How did Vienna change in the past decades?
Chrysler: I feel it is changing a lot. I just know it in the contemporary music context. I feel there are more and more confident young generations of musicians and artists who are tapping into all kinds of genres and have the technical means to really experiment and get exposure. I think ten, twenty years ago there was much less of that, there was one music project in one genre and there was really not much healthy competition.
You are often described as being Austrian born based in New York? How do you feel about that?
Chrysler: That’s OK with me. At this point in my life I’ve spent an equal amount of years in Austria and New York. For me it’s a healthy combination of both. As I get older I spend more time back home, but I see myself more as a New Yorker, I guess.
You were classically trained from early childhood on. You made your debut as a vocalist at Austria’s Opera House at the age of seven and you had your own rock band at thirteen. At age eighteen you were already working toward your master degree in Vienna. How did all this influence you playing the theremin, which you first encountered in 2000?
Chrysler: The instrument is extremely difficult to master and takes years to learn. Only a few musicians in the world can play absolutely in tune, but the theremin has trouble being taken seriously by the music world sometimes. For me, the theremin was interesting because of its historical position in the context of classic music history. Initially, it was applied in classical composition or when there was really a big turn in the approach to classical music in the early 20th century. Additionally, it also offered this uncharterd territory after I had followed strict composition rules and then dismissed them by being in music projects in bands here in New York. It provided a middle way that really allowed me to find my own personal structure, to just go and explore and see where I am going to land. There was no reference to how it is supposed to sound or what one was supposed to do; so this was very liberating.
You’ve toured extensively around the world. This year you will again perform at Roskilde Festival and Moog Fest. You played at concert halls like the Konzerthaus Vienna and L.A Disney Hall, but also at museum venues like Moderne Museet Stockholm and CAC Vilnius, rock clubs and churches and many other places. What was the venue or the gig in Vienna where you enjoyed performing the most?
Chrysler: Oh yes, I remember once playing on the roof of the main library on “The Guertel” (the belt road). It was very windy and the wind entered the electrical field and participated in the performance. That was really fun. The last time I played in Vienna was in Valie Export’s Cube (U-Bahn Josefstädter Straße) where I liked the basic idea and the concept of the whole. Playing there was a fantastic opportunity.
Valie Export’s “Kubus” is an autonomous, transparent space, set underneath a railway bridge, constructed solely from glass.
Thinking of contemporary Austrian music, is there someone who comes to mind right away?
Chrysler: I must say that at the moment I am just not really tapped into the cutting edge, and I certainly would not want to forget anyone who is out there right now and doing very interesting stuff.
The latest discovery of refreshing Austrian music that I really liked was “König Leopold”. I think I am going to do something with them in the summer. It’s fantastic to proudly use Austrian slang but at the same time carry it so far that it is still accessible – I got the link about them through some American friends actually. It’s so strong and innovative that it communicates beyond the Austrian boundaries, even though it taps into something very Austrian. I think that’s terrific.
You also write film scores and collaborate with artist Jesper Just, who is famous for his atmospheric films. He has been selected to represent Denmark at the Venice Biennale this year. Where is an inspiring place to see contemporary art in Vienna?
Chrysler: Naturally, I always see what kinds of exhibitions there are and go to the MuseumsQuartier and check out things there. Every time I am in Vienna, I go to the Jewish Museum and see whatever they have. That’s my favorite museum in Vienna. Because for me, Vienna and New York are actually quite connected. I really feel that whatever stopped in Vienna, due to sad unfortunate political reasons, a lot of the intellectual heritage has continued here in NY. I remember going to Schoenberg concerts, and seeing these eighty year old men in baby-blue polyester suits following the Concerto theme from the score, – all Austrian immigrants.
Do you sometimes feel homesick?
Chrysler: Sometimes maybe. I miss more the familiar sense and visual impressions of nature, of the sky or the seasons. Things like this are just kind of a part of you, and I usually always get the dose I need by going back. Each summer I spend more than one or two months exclusively in the mountains of Austria. There is nothing but nature and mushrooms and blueberries. Everytime I am in Vienna I typically stay in the 2nd district close by Karmeliterplatz, which I think has changed and blossomed a lot (*just around the corner of TheNewContemporary editorial headquarter in Schraubenfabrik). It’s always wonderful to walk from there to the 1st district and then up to the Guertel, to the Brunnenmarkt. That really allows me to soak in the color of Vienna, and then I am satisfied again and can leave again.
Any typical smell or aroma you associate with Vienna?
Chrysler: Würstelstand! The greasy Käsekrainer, of course.
The Käsekrainer is a special sausage that contains melted cheese inside. It can be found in most of the “Wurstelstands” in the center of the city.
Where did you have dinner the last time you were in Vienna?
Chrysler: At my friend’s house. Everytime I am in Vienna I am lucky enough to be invited to people who cook their own Austrian delicacies like hefty homemade meals. One of them is Gertrude Henzl. She started a store called “Henzls Ernte”. She collects all these herbs and fruits and vegetables from the gardens of family and friends and preserves it.
German friends of mine import the washing powder Persil to the States. What do you take back to New York? Any souvenirs from Vienna or Austria?
Chrysler: I always bike to this mill on the countryside in Styria, where you can watch them grain the flour. I always get polenta, gries, and wholewheat products from that mill and illegally import it back to the USA. I sometimes smuggle the pudding pulver.
But no Sachertorte?
Chrysler: The Sachertorte in the wood box is always guaranteed to be one of the best gifts to bring to the people I treasure. It ends up in my suitcase very often, but sadly I never eat it rather it is eaten by someone else I’ve given it to. I make the cakes by myself. I like to bake.
When can you next be heard and seen again in Vienna?
Chrysler: No exact dates yet, but I’ll play on April 14th in Berlin with Tocotronic. I played theremin on their latest album.
Best known for her theremin style, composer/musician Dorit Chrysler also has a prolific recording and performing career as a vocalist, guitarist, keyboardist, producer, and engineer. In New York, she fronted a number of notable bands, including New York rock quartet Halcion. Dorit has shared live bills with acts as diverse as Dinosaur Jr., Blonde Redhead, Marilyn Manson, Mercury Rev, and Echo & The Bunnymen. She has also collaborated and recorded with artists and producers such as Tocotronic, Elliott Sharp, Judah Bauer (Cat Power), Matt Johnson (The The), Gordon Raphael (Strokes, The), and many more. Embarking on a solo career in 2000, Dorit released her first solo record featuring her theremin in 2004. Produced, recorded, engineered, and performed by the artist herself. She is also the cofounder of the New York Theremin Society.
Anders Trentemøller presents Dorit Chrysler and “Avalanche”, a haunting, evocative EP on his In My Room imprint! The two first met when Anders asked Dorit to play her theremin on his recent album “Into The Great Wide Yonder”.