A Philadelphia-based orchestra plays soft and flowing music of the 1500s, originally written for the dead, as gravestones and crypts loom in the background. A cemetery is certainly not the typical venue for musicians, but then the Divine Hand Ensemble is not a typical group.
In September, the ensemble performed a concert at Laurel Hill Cemetery. There were violins and cellos set up next to mausoleums.
There are many reasons, besides playing in a cemetery, that makes the Divine Hand Ensemble unlike any other. They use the first electronic instrument invented — the theremin — created by Leon Theremin in the 1920s. It is often used as a spooky sound effect in sci-fi or horror movies.
The Divine Hand Ensemble is led by Mano Divina, a master theremin player currently ranked third in the world.
The instrument is unique in that the player does not touch anything, but instead moves his or her hands through the air controlling the pitch and volume.
“There is no other instrument in the world you play without touching, strumming. You are literally pulling notes out of thin air,” Divina said.
The 10-member group features classical harps, violins, violas, cellos, guitars, glockenspiels, marimbas and the theremin.
“We specialize in music that is powerful, creative and moving,” Divina said.
The Divine Hand Ensemble puts the theremin back into the forefront.
“Very seldom is it used musically,” Divina said. “Most people use it as a sound effect. We bring it out to the front to show people it exists and then also that serious classical music can be performed on it. It’s not just a novelty.”
Divina also uses the theremin to replace the vocals in operas.
“I call what we do the sound of electricity singing,” he said.
Divine Hand Ensemble is also unique in that it specializes in funerary music. This type of music originated in the 1500s and was created and played exclusively for the dead.
“The concept was that the funerary violinist would stay at the grave after the mourners left throughout the night to play music that would help the deceased soul realize it was dead, cleanse them of their sins and send it on to the afterlife,” Divina said.
Divina said prior to the emergence of funerary music, the only music performed at funerals was targeted for the mourners of the deceased, not the deceased themselves.
The name “funerary music” might give the impression of being bleak or depressing, but it is delicate and often peaceful to hear.
The Divine Hand Ensemble started incorporating one funerary piece per show to see how others would respond. After receiving positive feedback from audience and thousands of hits for its funerary YouTube videos, the ensemble started to include more pieces in performances. The Laurel Hill show was the first time the members performed a whole set of it.
Divina noted that the reason for the disappearance of funerary music dates back to Pope Gregory XVI. He decided it was “unlawful to intercede on behalf of man for God,” Divina said. The structure of the music is composed differently because it was not meant for living.
People become more interested in the theremin and funerary music as Halloween approaches. Divina even made his debut on a Halloween.
However, the group members’ repertoire expands greatly beyond spookier sounds. Their sets often include contemporary music such as works by Queen and movie soundtracks. They take these songs and turn them into classical pieces. Divina noted that they begin holiday shows in November, playing songs for all denominations.
The group plays across the city in all venues.
“Temple is one of the places we have yet to make a performance. We would love to bring our group to Temple,” Divina said.
Often people are surprised to see the theremin and do not know such an instrument exists. The group holds question and answer sessions after each performance.
Most of the feedback has been positive, but there have been negative critics as well, Divina said.
“One organization thought it was a magic trick,” Divina said. “They refused to accept the fact that it was real. Every now and then you’ll come across a person who just refuses to believe it’s happening.”
The Divine Hand Ensemble is profiled in the new documentary called “21st Century Classical Music,” which is set to air on WHYY at the end of the year. It is a sequel to the documentary “Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey,” which tells the story of the instrument’s creator and history.
The new documentary shows how current musicians are using the theremin and follows the Divine Hand Ensemble crew as they establish themselves as classical musicians in the new millennium.
The group thrives by being original and creative. In the spirit of that, they have done another thing no else has. They filmed a 30-minute steampunk symphony. Steampunk is a genre of science fiction that is typically set in the Victorian Age. Divina is a fan of steampunk but realized there is not any music that matches the genre’s period — the early 1900s. In this video, “A Clockwork Universe,” the musicians play classical music corresponding to the time of steampunk with visuals depicting that time.
Divina said this music moves many different types of people.
“We have goth kids sitting next to little old ladies that are there for operas,” Divina said. “There is something for everyone.”
Maura Filoromo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.