~ Milica Puric ~
Mano Divina, composer and musician from Philadephia – photographed on his birthday by Dan Webb
He is delicately moving his right and left hands in the air right above the strange device that produces beautiful, angelic music similar to the sound of a violin. Without touching any object, Mano Divina Giannone, a composer, and musician from Philadelphia, plays thermin, a little-known electronic instrument controlled by the musician without any physical contact.
This rare instrument was named after Russian inventor Leon Theremin, who patented the device in 1928, and Mano Divina Giannone is one of the most famous performers and promoters of it in America. Besides him, there are not many musicians who play it.
Born in Pennsylvania with Italian parents, Mano Divina Giannone has been surrounded by music his entire life. He played several instruments and in his teenage year started playing in various musical groups and performing around the world. That’s how he first heard the theremin played by French electronic composer and musician Jean-Michel Jarre. That performance impressed him.
“Nothing was real. I thought that was a magic trick,” Mano said. “And by the end of that song, I realized not only it was real, but he was making music by his hands in the air not touching anything. My impression was the same as the impression of people who come to see me at the concerts: First, they don’t think it’s real, then they watch closely and finally they realize I am really playing with my hands in the air!”
Right before he discovered the theremin, Mano used to play nine instruments. After he heard the theremin for the first time (in the early ’90s) he wanted to learn more, but the trouble was that, in the beginning, nobody knew the name of that wondrous device. He asked everyone — musicians, friends, everyone around him, but no one knew… One day he finally met a man who told him that it was a theremin. Mano immediately contacted Robert Moog, the American inventor of synthesizer, and bought theremin from him. That was in 1995-96.
Mano Divina (right) and ‘The Divine Hand Ensemble’ at the concert
In that time just a few people knew about this instrument. It is a little bit more popular today, so people can get lessons, but in the past, when Mano started playing, nobody knew the name of it, not to mentioned how to play it. “So I had to figure out how to play. I didn’t learn from any teacher!” Luckily for him, he was schooled in music and had a lot of training in other instruments.
Soon, he started performing in European churches. He was in France and Italy playing beautiful compositions like “Ave Maria.” The audience loved it, although they needed a little time to comprehend what is happening on the stage. “At first people couldn’t understand anything because most of them have never seen an instrument played without a touch. It takes a moment or two to understand what is happening and what I am doing. It seems that they try to understand whether what they see matches the sound they hear — something between opera singing and young boys singing. After a while, they become fascinated by performance. They say they are mesmerized watching me play, and they say they are moved to tears by the music they hear. And indeed, the theremin is an instrument unlike any other — you play in the air so there is nothing to see. You need to use muscle memory and lose visual one. You only can rely on your ears, and that’s why this is a very difficult instrument to play and master. That’s why there are just a few people who play it. I even had to stop playing all other instruments in order to focus on theremin,” he said.
Mary Bryson is playing the harp at ‘The Divine Hand Ensemble’ concert
After spending many years in Europe, Mano decided to come back to his hometown Philadelphia and continue playing the theremin. He formed his musical group, The Divine Hand Ensemble, and on Halloween night 2009 they had their concert debut at Sellersville Theater in Philadelphia. That day remained their anniversary, and they always have an important concert for Halloween.
Mano and his Divine Hand Ensemble perform classical compositions, chamber music, opera arias, sacred choral music and even some spooky themes (because the theremin was used in some science fiction movies) and some rock interpretation. They practice and rehearse a lot. They performed for Pope Francis last year while he was visiting Philadelphia and he was delighted.
Mano said their concerts are different from other classical concerts. “We talk to our audience, we encourage people to get involved, ask questions, we don’t just play and disappear. We don’t like a stuffy glass wall between audience and ourselves.”
‘The Divine Hand Ensemble’ even has a performance at a cemetery once a year.
“When I started playing sacred music in Italy I stumbled across funeral music,” Mano said. “That is the music written for the dead to help them to cross into the afterlife, and that’s why that is very beautiful and at the same time weird music. I never heard anything like it,” he explained, adding that the proof that Americans love that type of music is the fact that the YouTube video of the ensemble playing at the cemetery gained 700,000 views.
Once a year ‘The Divine Hand Ensemble’ has a concert at Laurel Hill Cemetery. On this place, they perform funerary music for people who love this type of music
“Audiences love that music, and some of them even ask us to perform those compositions on our concerts,” Mano said. “However, that music is a little heavy, depressing, so we decide to perform it once a year at Laurel Hill Cemetery for people who love that. We perform beautiful music and we are united in our mission to touch people with our hypnotizing performances. I really hope I will continue to illuminate and entertain them for the rest of my life.”
You can find more about Mano Divina Giannone and his ‘The Divine Hand Ensemble’ on their website http://divinehand.net/index.php and their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/divinehandensemble/?pnref=lhc
~ Milica Puric ~©