Russian dolls warble in concert


On a recent Saturday evening in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, I had the privilege of being the audience at a concert by 12 students from Tokyu Seminar BE school of continuing education.

As I sat in the front row, each student removed from their bag a matryoshka — a Russian nesting doll — and a stethoscope. Then they put one arm of their stethoscope into one ear and placed the end on the side of their doll. Next, their teacher and conductor, Koichiro Aida, called them to attention before starting a CD player playing a piece of piano music. With that, the band began to wave their free hands back and forth in front of the dolls — creating an electronic warble that I soon recognized as a haunting version of “Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz.” It was like watching a group of doctors each examining a group of matryoshkas and casting spells on them.

Intent concentration

As their faces became intent with concentration, their right hands, with fingers bent, moved different distances from the doll, creating what sounded like a cello or even a flute, or as one of the women said — a woman’s voice. Obviously, these were no ordinary matryoshkas.

In fact, these 30-cm-tall matryoshkas were electric instruments called matryomins, and their owners were attending a Saturday-evening ensemble-playing class at the continuing education center.

A matryomin is a combination of a matryoshka and a theremin, an instrument invented by a Russian named Leon Theremin around 1920.

A basic theremin looks like a box with two antennas, whose circuitry generates a weak electromagnetic field that can be “played” without touching the instrument. To do so, music-makers move a hand toward or away from a vertical antenna to vary the electrostatic charge, which changes the frequency of radio oscillators to create different pitches of sound. Moving a hand toward or away from the horizontal antenna controls the volume.

Perhaps easy to describe, but coaxing anything musical out of a theremin takes lots of practice, and mastering the instrument to play tunes takes even more practice again.

Unlike most matryoshka — also known as babushika — which typically portray a girl in a gaily colored traditional dress and scarf, within which lies another, and another, matryomins can be twisted open to reveal batteries and electrical circuitry inside that incorporate both a tiny speaker and an amplifier. On the back are a few buttons and switches.

As Aida explained, matryomins are actually easier to play than theremins, because they have their volume preset by switches, so all the musicians have to do is move their right hands closer for a higher note, and further away for a lower one. Those movements, though, need to be very precisely judged to hit the right notes — hence the intent looks on the players’ faces.

However, as Aida pointed out, theremins are also easily affected by any nearby physical movements or electrical waves — which is why encasing them in the wooden dolls is not just cute, but a perfect way to shield each instrument from others so they can be played together.

Playing ensemble

When playing ensemble, the musicians wear a stethoscope attached to the instrument in order to be able to hear their own instrument in one ear while listening to the others with the other.

During the 75-minute class, Aida’s students practiced scales and how to play vibrato. “Don’t move your entire arm; try to move it only from the elbow to control the sound,” he advised.

The last tune on that evening’s playlist was a popular Japanese song called “Shonen Jidai” by Yosui Inoue. Watching them perform this classic, I almost felt as if I was sitting before a choir of matryoshka dolls that were . . . humming.

“Playing the matryomin is actually like singing,” said the student who had compared its sound to a woman’s voice, “because the more I practice, the better I become.”

My private “concert” had one last surprise: The quintessentially Russian-seeming matryomin — a device invented by a Russian, inside a traditional Russian doll — was actually designed in 2003 by a Japanese theremin player named Masami Takeuchi. According to Aida, who is a disciple of Takeuchi, his master wanted to promote theremin to more people, so he came up with this instrument (it is, however, actually made in Russia, and it sells here for around 40,000 yen).

“Honestly,” Aida confessed, “as an instrument I prefer theremin because I have finer control over the pitch and volume. But with the matryomin, there’s the fun of playing ensemble.”

It’s fun he’s only too happy to share, both with his students and those who come to listen to the Nichebo! matryomin group he performs with in live shows.