Armen Ra On His Shocking Documentary, Favorite Nightlife Stories, & Theremin

In this holiday-shortened week, with the spring pushing and pushing and pushing its way to free us from this winter of discontent, I am writing about the unusual suspects who toil or play in the clubs as they define their crafts. Yesterday it was FLXX. Today it’s Armen Ra, the master of the theremin. The theremin is a rare, eerie-sounding musical instrument, with its foremost astonishing trait explained by Armen in our interview below. Right now, Aremn is raising loot on Indiegogo for a theremin-infused feature documentary about his life: one of growing up in Iranian aristocracy and, after going on vacation in the United States, being forced to stay there due to the Iranian Revolution. A man from wealth and in exile, his story takes flight when he discovers the magic of the theremin and its effect on people. The fundraiser has six days left, and $4,000 to go to get the feature released.

Armen Ra is a well-known face and figure in the posh NY nightclub scene. His story is of ups and downs and all-arounds. It will shock and awe you. I asked him to tell me all about it
It’s been a long road. You are an exile,  being forced to leave Iran and live in a foreign land. Tell me about that transition.
That transition was a complete nightmare. I literally thought it was a nightmare for years. Coming from a sheltered aristocratic background, growing up in the opera, traveling the world yearly, submerged in music and art and literature. Being stuck here was like Gilligan’s Island from Hell. I started making jewelry, doing puppet shows with sets and costumes, learning about the power of beauty. We had been to the US several times already, but I didn’t speak any English. My mother and sister were fluent though, so they helped. I adapted quite fast in every way possible. I had to. It was a sudden survival, and I was unprepared at that age, but you figure things out when you have to.

Drugs, prostitution, alcohol, a zillion demons – not exactly the American dream. How’d you get out of that?
Divine intervention, self discipline, and believing in my own intelligence to eventually conquer the demons that were in reach. The light is always there. We are all light. The substance abuse was knocking holes in my aura, diminishing the light. It was not easy to get a regular job for someone like me at the time, especially when the club scene collapsed. Sometimes I had nowhere to sleep and was living in my friend’s multi-million dollar mansion. I worked at Patricia Field doing make-up, did reception at hair salons, drag shows, and whatever else I had to do to survive. I even worked at Show World in the old Times Square! Until I found a voice through the theremin, I was spiraling downward. I wanted to be great at something, and drag and clubs and doing make-up did not satisfy that urge, that quiet knowing that something else is in store, but what? A gift from the gods…waiting for me to open my eyes, to look up.

Tim Burton, Andy Warhol, Vali Myers, Salvador Dali met you, checked you out… you guys rubbed shoulders.
Being in NYC at that time and living in the East Village, it was inevitable really. I’ve always been lucky in attracting interesting people, and I was just amazed that such incredible people and artists wanted me around. It wasn’t that I had low self-esteem; I was just coming out of years of school and abuse, so it was a fabulous shock. I tell the stories in the film. It really is like mythology, and thankfully its all documented and witnessed. Being 16 and spending hours a day with Vali Myers in her room at Hotel Chelsea with people like Ira Cohen,  Andy Warhol, and Debbie Harry coming and going was insane. Vali would constantly take Polaroids of me and send them to Dali. Befriending Leigh Bowery and Thierry Mugler, dancing with Grace Jones in the Limelight DJ booth,s itting on the floor of Frankie Knuckles’ DJ booth at the World… going to a tranny hooker club with Tim Burton and Francis Ford Copolla. Yes, really. Doing the 1999 MTV VMAs in the Madonna Drag Queens segment; I represented the frozen video, that’s a story! I COULD go on! 

The theremin. You have mastered it, and yet I’ve never heard of it.
The theremin is the first electronic instrument ever. Invented by Russian Physicist Leon Theremin around 1920, it is the only instrument that is played without touching, and one of the most difficult to play. Many people use it as a sound effect. I play it as a classical instrument and a voice. My theremin has an eight-octave range, so she is like the ultimate opera singer. She sounds like Maris Callas from beyond. The theremin was used in many sci-fi and horror movies in the background. I think it fell into obscurity because it was difficult to play properly and was not easily accessible. My intention is to bring this instrument to the foreground where it belongs. It has taken me all over the world and onto some of the greatest stages. The sound affects people, it brings out emotion, and touches the heart like a beautiful voice does.

What is the film about?
The film is channeling sadness and horror into beauty, and music is the alchemy. It’s about being clear enough to receive. We are in THE LAST WEEK of our Indigogo crowd-funding campaign. We’re asking anyone who is interested in seeing this fabulous film made properly to please help support us by making donations and/or especially spreading the word about the film and the campaign. We are working very hard to create a meaningful, beautiful, high-quality work of art. Any and all support is welcomed and much appreciated.

And thank you, Steve. You helped me when I first started working in clubs by believing in me and giving me work of all kinds, and you continue to support what I am doing. I really appreciate it. You’re a real gentleman.

Know Your Nerdstruments: The Theremin

Last Saturday, I wandered into Barbès in Brooklyn for the first time to see an old friend named Mark Snyder perform a set of bizarrely beautiful ambient compositions involving a clarinet, a tuba, an accordion, a laptop, and a video projector. When Mark was finished, we refreshed our pints and stuck around for the next act, a popular duo called One Ring Zero. I must have been the only one in the bar who hadn’t heard of them before, because within moments, the cozy back room was packed with a standing-room crowd of cute Brooklyn girls in thrift-shop chic and shaggy-haired guys wearing thick-framed glasses singing along to the music. The band tore through an enjoyable set and the crowd clearly loved them. They had the look: glasses, fedora, neckties. They had the ironic lit-rock lyrics, provided by popular writers like Paul Auster, Dave Eggers, and Margaret Atwood. But most of all, they had the instruments: claviola, accordion, and notably, the theremin, the nerdiest instrument in contemporary music.

Nerd rock is nothing new, dating back to Gen X heroes They Might Be Giants, Ben Folds Five, Weezer, and countless others, and if ORZ (as they’re known) become the genre’s standard bearers, more power to them. But their use of the theremin was probably the least surprising part of the set. Looking around at the NPR donor base in the room (myself included), I shook my head as the cover was lifted from the shiny instrument. “A theremin,” I thought. “Of course.”

The theremin is a bizarre electronic instrument invented by a Russian professor in 1928 that’s played by holding and moving the hands close to it without touching it in order to manipulate an electrostatic field. Its sound is usually described as “eerie” and “haunting,” but no musician outside the former Soviet Union or Radiohead uses it for its sound. It’s a novelty instrument, more science fair than first chair, and the only thing that could make it nerdier would be a kazoo accompaniment (idea!). In short, it’s all but impossible to play without irony, but that’s fine when irony sells so well.

Think about the last time you’ve heard a theremin. On Kutiman’s epic mash-up, The Mother of All Funk Chords? From indie darling Bright Eyes, or electronic duo Goldfrapp? Would these artists use the same sound if it was produced by a simple synthesizer or laptop computer? Probably not, because that would take away the novelty value of the instrument. And more importantly, it wouldn’t impress the listening classes with the fact that these artists are so dedicated to their craft that they made the effort to learn how to play a totally obscure instrument. (To their credit, ORZ definitely knew how to play the theremin.)

Perhaps the greatest example of modern theremin artistry can be seen on the trippy kids’ show Yo Gabba Gabba!, where a gregarious Asian man named Soko, wearing a white jacket and dark glasses, demonstrates the theremin with a flawless rendition of Brahms’s Lullaby. The song is presented in a segment entitled Cool Tricks. I can’t think of a more appropriate category to file it under.