Hidden Hands: The Theremin
The Art of the Theremin
DELOS D/CD1014 CD (1987)
Those fortunate enough to have caught the Channel Four documentary will know what I’m talking about here: the legendary Professor Leon Theremin, his amazing instrument, and his relationship to Clara Rockmore, the latter without a doubt the only person who can claim to be a virtuoso on the Theremin. (And see my Silver Apples review above for further notes on unusual electronic devices). Let’s dispense with any silly notions that we’re dealing with a ‘novelty’ instrument, and put to one side the history of its use on Hollywood soundtracks (esp. in Sci-fi and Horror movies) to signal ‘weirdness’ to the listening audience. Not to rubbish that important side of musical history, but to my mind it rather limits the importance and range of the Theremin. First, note that (in the same way that basalt is impossible to carve, but the Egyptians sculpted it into works all the greater for that difficulty) the Theremin is impossible to play; if you or I get near it, it creates an uncontrollable howling. It requires very disciplined hand movements within a limited area of space; and there is no keyboard to guide you, to relate your playing to a scheme of western notation. Thus it also requires complete stasis of the remainder of the body throughout the performance. Secondly, having mastered the instrument, to play it so as to express colour, tone, dynamics – and to embody the music with personality, feeling, soul – comes close to a miracle. Clara Rockmore embodies this miracle. Hearing this recording for the first time moved me close to tears. Thirdly, she is to be awarded a Nobel prize for her dedication to the vision of treating the Theremin as a serious instrument, despite the neglect it has suffered at the hands of this cruel and indifferent world. And of course despite the developments down the avenues of ‘easy and instant’ electronic sounds opened up by Dr Robert Moog, which wouldn’t have happened at all without Theremin’s pioneering work, I might add! There’s justice for you…maybe Rockmore lives in a parallel universe where events took a different, happier turn. In any case, pin back your lugholes and prepare for what Harley R described as the sound of ‘an enormous bee let loose in the room’. Get stung!
Stop Press: In October 1994 I heard the first UK demonstration of the Electronic Glove by its inventor and player, Walter Fabeck. I thought of the Theremin, as the Glove also requires no actual physical contact with the instrument – the musician operates a keyboard as if by magic, fingers moving in the air six inches above the keys. This allows free-flowing clusters of notes and multiple sounds that (I guess) could not be achieved with a normal keyboard. Its hydraulics and articulated joints also allow the keyboard to tilt and rotate, giving interesting freedom of movement around the stage – the player is not rooted to one place. However the Glove connects very much to Midi technology, and came equipped with a database of rather familiar-sounding (and easily accessed) samples. The sheer physical difficulty of playing the Theremin interests me more.
Double Stop Press: For interest, here’s a brief summary (in my own words) of a short radio broadcast by Mark ‘Interesting’ Russell (of Radio 3’s Mixing It), on 27 August 1996. All credit to Mr Russell and his team of researchers.
The Theremin’s original name was (wait for it)… the Ether-Phone! The hoop component is the volume control, and the ariel controls the pitch. The machine generates a magnetic field and the player controls the tone which is produced. The range is amazing, it can deliver supersonic and subsonic vibrations. Leon Theremin invented it in the 1920s. It caught on in his native Russia – Lenin loved the instrument! – and after a successful tour of the Soviet Union, Theremin settled in the USA in 1928. The Americans warmed to the device, and it was used to perform classical music. John Cage (in 1937) criticised the misuse of this radical invention, which had the potential to make a totally different music, and here it was simply reinterpreting what we already knew. Clara Rockmore seemed to attract criticism both ways – she played classical tunes (thus annoying the avant-gardists) but insisted on showing the Theremin’s own unique expression (thus annoying the classical purists, who wanted it to sound like a violin or human voice). Both Edgard Varese and Charles Ives wrote music for the Theremin, but somehow it remained an ‘oddity’ and did not gain mass acceptance in the closed-minded world of classical music. The world of ‘popular’ music remained another matter. Two Hollywood films which used the Theremin are The Lost Weekend and The Day the Earth stood still, to suggest the sounds of paranoia and other-worldliness respectively (and see above). It was through cinema that Brian Wilson discovered it and used the Theremin on ‘Good Vibrations’; I hope you know enough about all that! This ‘aerophonic’ method of creating sound is now being hooked up to midi technology. This means the original warm tone of the Theremin can now be expanded to include a greater range of tone colours. It also means that familiar modern synthy sounds can be played in a way that is simply not possible using the keyboard alone.