Chain D.L.K.: Even though in the experimental/electronic scene, that we at Chain D.L.K. deal with, the Theremin is often to be heard, there are still many out there who don’t know what a Theremin is or looks like, so I was wondering if you would mind introducing the instrument before we talk about yourself…
Armen Ra: The Theremin is the first electronic instrument invented in 1917, and developed in the 20’s. It was invented by Russian physicist Leon Theremin, it is played with intricate hand movements made in the air between two antennas, one creating pitch and the other controlling volume. It was brought to the US in 1929 and 500 of them were built by RCA.
Chain D.L.K.: I am a big fan of the instrument, but during the show you mentioned something I was not aware of: tell me more about KGB putting Leon Theremin in prisons… What was that all about?
Armen Ra: In 1938 Leon Theremin was “removed” from his studio in NYC and literally disappeared, not even his wife knew of his whereabouts for 9 years, he was imprisoned and forced by the KGB to develop military and espionage devices.
Chain D.L.K.: Besides Clara Rockmore’s videos from the 1920s, where did you learn to play one of the most difficult instruments in the world? Did you have a teacher or were you self-thought? Since it is so much based on good musical ear, is it even possible to actually teach someone Theremin or do you just have to know and love music and learn to move your hands accordingly?
Armen Ra: I think that a cultured musical ear is very important in playing the Theremin, much like singing I believe that the technique can be taught, but it is up to the musician to give life and feeling to the vibrations by the way he/she plays it. I watched the videos to learn the technique, and then just taught myself to play.
Chain D.L.K.: How long have you studied the Theremin for?
Armen Ra: It will be 2 years in January.
Chain D.L.K.: So you were born in Iran but you are Armenian and you live in New York… Would you like to tell us a little more about your background? Your English is perfect and accent-less so I assume you’ve lived here for a long time…
Armen Ra: SIGH… Yes I am an Armenian from Iran, my family was very prominent and established there, every summer we traveled to Europe and America, in 1978 we went on vacation and the revolution happened in Iran and we were never able to return, devastatingly dramatic darling…
Chain D.L.K.: Are you influenced by the political scenario in Iran and Iraq? What kind of course of event would you wish for in these war-smelling days?
Armen Ra: I have been influenced or should I say infested by middle eastern politics, since my childhood home and way of life were destroyed by it, and at this point, the reality of global politics is so science fiction and inconceivably evil, that I wish they would ALL disappear (Auntie Mame is out on DVD).
Chain D.L.K.: Do you or did you ever go back to Iran or Armenia?
Armen Ra: I am not allowed to return to Iran, and hope to visit Armenia someday.
Chain D.L.K.: You were raised by a concert pianist, a lead soprano and a teacher of Ichabana and that obviously contributed to your musical formation, but what kind of music do you enjoy listening to today?
Armen Ra: My dad was also a Sax player, so I heard Charlie Parker and Aretha Franklin, with Puccini, Chopin, and classical Persian and Armenian music, and I still listen to the same types of music. Lately I have been abusing Chopin Nocturnes, and Mozart’s Requium, and an old Banchee’s record.
Chain D.L.K.: In your show you played classic melodies and tunes most of us know… Do you ever play songs of your own and if yes what musical directions do they follow?
Armen Ra: I have been working on original songs, and they are melodic and classical with chill beat’s and lush orchestration, gorgeous glitter with a dark sensibility.
Chain D.L.K.: Have you ever thought about approaching modern electronica/drum’n’bass or similar genres instead of classical or soundtrack’s music?
Armen Ra: Yes, and currently I am working with DJ Dmitri (formerly of Dee-Lite) on a few tracks, and my friend Ethan who is a producer and drummer.
Chain D.L.K.: You told me you were working on two CDs… Would you tell us a little more about those? What are they about? When will they be released and on what label?
Armen Ra: Besides the original stuff that will be out next year, I am recording a CD of the songs I play in my show, which I hope will be ready in December.
Chain D.L.K.: Have you ever considered being in a band?
Armen Ra: Yes, and I played with my friends band Anthony and the Johnsons a few times at Knitting Factory.
Chain D.L.K.: Do you enjoy playing live or do you prefer playing for yourself or in recording studios?
Armen Ra: I enjoy playing period. But most of all I enjoy playing for myself.
Chain D.L.K.: What artists/bands or Theremin masters inspire you and your music the most?
Armen Ra: Maria Callas, Sarah Vaughn, Yma Sumac, Clara Rockmore, I could go on… Claus Nomi, Nina Hagen, chopin Led Zeplin…
Chain D.L.K.: Are you familiar with the work of Italian Theremin musician Enrico Cosimi and of his band Theatrum Chemicum? If yes, how do you like that kind of usage of the instrument?
Armen Ra: Never heard of him.
Chain D.L.K.: In recent years we have witnessed a pretty aggressive revival of the Theremin and now a lot more people use it in music that is not always apt and that doesn’t deserve Theremin… Are you glad that the instrument is enjoying new popularity through this come-back or would you rather it to remain a precious art for the few who really understand it as opposed to those who exploit it commercializing it or its look/use/sound?
Armen Ra: I don’t think that it is possible to exploit a musical instrument, because it is a vessel of expression, and whoever wants and needs to use it as a medium is entitled, Theremin’s in every pot!
Chain D.L.K.: We’ve gone a long way from when the Theremin’s vibrato sound was being associated with the presence of an UFOs in all the movies of the 40es/50es, to the days of “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys, to these days, when, besides you and many other artists, like The Unireverse and similar synthesizer-based electronic/experimental outfits who add the Theremin to their otherwise wide sound palette, a lot of other people in the music business use it to add analog feel to rock music and the like (i. e. the band Delta V)… Where do you see the future of the Theremin?
Armen Ra: I am the future of the Theremin.
Chain D.L.K.: So, how important exactly is your sexual identity in your musical life? Do you live the two things as two separate things or does your sexuality relate, influence, enhance your music and or your shows?
Armen Ra: It is all connected, my natural sexuality and mannerisms are some of the ingredients in the spell that entrance and attract my audience.
Chain D.L.K.: How long have you been a drag queen for?
Armen Ra: I started conventional drag in my late teens, and refined it through the years.
Chain D.L.K.: I have read that you have modeled for fashion designer Pia Myrvold… Is fashion an important part of your life?
Armen Ra: I have modeled for many designers and photographers, Glamour is important in my life, not fashion.
Chain D.L.K.: Your look and your style during the show were so mysteriously dark and yet so gracefully vintage/classic… I only saw you once so I was wondering if your aesthetics are a dynamic work of love that transform your appearance every time or if you stick to what I have seen as if in a musical conceptual journey or a theme album?
Armen Ra: I try to be androgynous and intense, from a fitted suit with heels to couture Vamp gowns with long trains and pounds of jewels, the eyes are always painted with spells in hand. 20es lesbian chic.
Chain D.L.K.: What do you do in your life? Day job? Other musical experiences?
Armen Ra: Constantly experiencing music, I practice every day, read as much as possible, and develop new shows and pieces.
Chain D.L.K.: Where can people catch your performances in the future? My understanding is that the Thursday gig at the Starlight are turning to an end… Do you have any other recurring gigs in the city?
Armen Ra: I will be back at Starlight in a few months, and will be in Hudson NY on Dec 13-14 at the Hudson River theater. I am waiting on confirmation on other December shows, so if interested please e-mail me for details.
Chain D.L.K.: So what else can we expect from Armen Ra in the (near) future?
Armen Ra: Glamorous hauntings, and technical improvement.
Chain D.L.K.: Thanks for your time and this interview… If you feel I forgot something and you’d like to add anything now’s the time…
Armen Ra: The echo shouts your secrets from the mountain-tops, revealing only what you confided yourself.
[interviewed by Marc Urselli]