Imagine a group of people just up and deciding one day to write a discursively French song after comparing their earliest memories of being exposed to French music. Or a band of Russian musicians, marooned on a desert isle, passing the time by trying to reconstruct The Threepenny Opera with everyone remembering only one or two bits of it.
Such hypothetical feats of reconstructing group memory from mismatched individual fragments are best left to bands who compose and play as though ghosts were constantly drifting in and out through the transom anyway. Barbez is that kind of amnesiac chamber ensemble, a café band that can make you think they’ve hung their hats in every salty, wheezing-concertina sailor’s dive from Brussels to Bangalore when in fact they’ve barely been out of Brooklyn. They’re the musical equivalent of a von Sternberg movie, with a clamor of different accents stranded together in a kind of cosmopolitan enclave that really doesn’t exist anywhere. Or the kid’s game of Telephone, with klezmer, tango and musette voices from the cabarets russes and jazz clubs of Paris in the early 1900s whispered ear by ear to the present to emerge as some wonderful new mutant forged from remembered chunks of a forgotten musical vocabulary.
And that’s just the first track on Barbez’ eponymous CD, released last year on the Black Freighter label. “The Defiant Bicycle” is a lysergic musette flashback, a modern take on a style of accordion-driven waltz that throve in Parisian cafés and nightclubs early last century.
You don’t have to look far to find other recent examples of musette: the last song on the 69 Love Songs boxed set by fellow New York act Magnetic Fields is just one example. Still, it’s rare to find musette this concentrated or committed, or really as anything other than a dilettante addition to an album already conscientiously crammed with diverse styles (like the Magnetic Fields boxed set). The vocal, performed by St. Petersburg native Ksenia Vidyaykina-Gest, is like nothing you’ve heard in this new century. Whether Russian or English (she performs in both languages), Vidyaykina-Gest’s voice adds an additional something turbid (but also elegant) to an already complicated marriage of unusual sounds.
Plus they’ve got a theremin. The Barbez member who plays it, Pamelia Kurstin, was inspired to take up this most unusual of instruments after seeing a documentary about it: Steven M. Martin’s fascinating 1993 Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey. For those not yet hip to its ethereal charms, the short dope on the theremin is this: Invented in the ’20s by a Russian emigré scientist, it combines the signals from two high-frequency electronic oscillators, both of them too high for the human ear to detect, into one lower pitch that the performer modifies by passing his or her hand in front of an upright antenna. The resulting sound is a swooping kind of wail, something between a viola and a human voice, and powerfully reminiscent of ’50s science fiction movies. And for good reason—while largely neglected for its melodic capabilities since its invention, the eerie voice of the theremin has long been used as a sound effect in movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Multi-instrumentalist Kurstin says that one of the reasons she loves the theremin—which, by the way, requires a pretty good ear to play—is simply that she doesn’t get callouses from it. She also admires its versatility and says she wishes she could accomplish some of the same things a theremin can do with her voice—and that’s kind of funny, because even over the phone her high, bubbly voice and nearly ceaseless giggle are both very theremin-like.
Kurstin was fortunate enough to meet theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore—herself a Russian emigré and a longtime friend of theremin inventor Lev Termen—shortly before Rockmore passed away a few years ago. Kurstin remembers Rockmore—in her 90s at the time of their theremin summit in Rockmore’s New York apartment—for her Old World manners, her petite build, and her enthusiasm for meeting a fellow theremin player.
“We sat down and had tea and cookies and chatted,” Kurstin recalls. “She was really happy and excited because she didn’t get to meet many people who played the same instrument. It’s just not a very common instrument, and not very common to come across people who are out there performing with it.”
Not entirely true, Ms. Kurstin: The theremin has made a minor comeback in the past few years, with artists as diverse in style as Jon Spencer and the Voodoo Organist incorporating its eerie sci-fi sound into their recordings and performances. Still, most of the artists currently using it are doing so for effect rather than for melody. For that reason, it’s as wonderful to hear Kurstin’s theremin carry a Barbez melody as it must have been to hear “Good Vibrations” for the first time, when the Beach Boys rescued the theremin from the Hollywood soundstage and gave it a new lease on life in popular music.
In Barbez, Kurstin’s theremin is just one more unusual sound returning to the present after bouncing around the ether for the better part of a century, finally finding an adhesive surface in the present. For all the ferment of mothball sounds in Barbez, however, guitarist and main songwriter Dan Kaufman says he considers his band an essentially modern ensemble.
“I hope it doesn’t come across as too much of a retro thing,” he says. “We’re not setting out to be that at all. There’s things we like from the past that get filtered into the sound, but we’re products of now, and that’s what the songs come out of.”
Barbez performs Tuesday, May 27, at Jay’s Upstairs. 10 PM. Cover TBA.