Passion: The Theremin

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3)

man plays theremin

Great Vibrations [paulgalipeau / Flickr]

You may not know what a theremin is but you’ve no doubt listened to one. You’ve heard its unearthly voice in sci-fi flicks, its haunting tremor in horror films, and its groovy wobbliness in the Beach Boys’ hit Good Vibrations. But long before the theremin reverberated throughout American pop-culture it was known to all of Russia as that ethereal vibrato in classical music.

Romancing a theremin doesn’t come easy. Unlike the family piano or the ubiquitous guitar it is an instrument that is hard to come by; you often have to assemble it yourself or at the very least track one down online. And the appeal of the theremin is not just its distinctive sound — it’s that it is literally a hands-off instrument. To play the theremin you have to move your hands around the two metal antennae, which control the Theremin’s pitch and volume. The very act of summoning sound from the ether practically transports the Theremin player to another dimension.

Leon theremin

Leon Theremin [Vincinnati / Flickr]

The theremin’s sound — the primal scream when music first met electricity — is not nearly as idiosyncratic as its history. In 1919 Leon Theremin, a Russian physicist, invented the wonderfully wacky instrument while researching proximity sensors for the Russian government. After the Theremin received rave reviews at the Bolshevik Era equivalent of Macworld, Vladimir Lenin invited Theremin to play the instrument bearing his name. Lenin was so wowed by the theremin that he took lessons, commissioned 600 theremins to be distributed throughout the Soviet Union, and insisted that Leon Theremin trek across the globe to flaunt this latest breakthrough in Soviet technology.

The passion for the theremin is a flame that has never died and for many it is burning brighter than ever. The 1993 documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey revived interest in the exotic instrument and spawned a new generation of thereminists, like The Lothars.

Have you fallen under the theremin’s spell? Do you have a passion for it as one who plays it? As one who listens to it? What does it feel like to find the instrument that is right for you? If you could give a piece of music the Theremin treatment what would it be?

Albert Glinsky

Department Chair and Professor of Music, Mercyhurst College

Composer, and author, Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage, Forward by Robert Moog

Pamelia Kurstin

World renowned Thereminist

First solo recording, Thinking Out Loud

If you are in the Boston area on April 23, Pamelia is performing at The Enormous Room in Central Square. For those of you who live elsewhere here’s a list of her upcoming shows.

Thanks to Ralph638s for suggesting Pamelia Kurstin.

Dalit Warshaw

Composer, Pianist, Thereminist

Professor of Composition, The Boston Conservatory
Extra Credit Reading

Pamelia Plays Theremin

overgrownpath, Theremin and variations on the moon, On An Overgrown Path, March 1, 2007: “But in an email exchange Armstrong identified the cassette of ‘ strange electronic-sounding music’ that fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins had reported him taking to Luna. The cassette in question was transcribed from Neil Armstrong’s own LP of Music Out of the Moon featuring Dr Samuel Hoffman. Author Andrew Smith decribes the theremin played by Hoffman on this album, and gives a short history of this unique instrument which mainly relates its use in rock music.”

Jon Bernhardt, A Somervillain Thereminist in White Castle’s Court (Day 2, Electric Boogaloo), Wobbly Music, February 20, 2007: “I sat with the ad people and asked them something that I’d been dying to know: How did they get the idea for the ad? Did they want to have a theremin player singing a song, so they searched youtube and found me? Or did they come up with the concept after stumbling upon my youtube video?” Read the full saga here.

Jen Hammaker, Technique 1, Theremin Major, April 6, 2007: “In the same vein, I’m glad all of us thereminists are developing a vernacular. So for anyone who is a discussion-type, I’m gonna run down some topics on theremin technique and briefly sum up what I’ve learned so far on the topic.”

Olivia Mattis, An Interview with Leon Theremin (conducted 1989), Thereminvox, October 5, 2002: “I showed him the signaling system of my instrument, which I played by moving my hands in the air, and which was called at that time the thereminvox. I played a piece [of music]. After I played the piece they applauded, including Vladimir Il’yich [Lenin], who had been watching very attentively during my playing.”

Tom Polk, Theremin? Tannerin? What’s the difference?, TomPolk.com: “In 1966, “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys hit #1 on the music charts, wowing listeners worldwide with its distinctive electronic sweeps and trills never before heard in pop music. For years listeners have asked ‘What is that sound?’ Was it a theremin? No, it was not a theremin.”

ndj, in a comment on Open Source, March 13, 2007: “How about a Nintendo Wii theremin hack! For those who were living in a cave this past Christmas, the new Nintendo Wii was THE gift to get or receive no matter your age. It uses wireless controllers called “wii-motes” that the player waves around to interact with a game. I played with a Wii for the first time today, and it is amazingly sensitive to motion in any direction or orientation.”

Nintendo Wiimote Theremin with Moog Little Phatty

VeritasRox, in a comment on Open Source, April 18, 2007: “It would be great to further explore the links between the theremin, electronic music, and dance. Theremin’s wife was part of a dance company that experimented with choregraphy generated in the midst of a theremin-like electronic field. Performing such dances demanded incredible awareness and body control, as slight variations in position would be registered as significant variations in sound.”

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  • herbert browne

    I really enjoy theremin… it’s the electric version of the musical saw (of which I am also fond)- with the advantages of circuitry- and an “airbow”. I don’t think that much of the classical repertoire lends itself to theremin, though, outside of (maybe) pieces written for cello… because it needs the “sweep” (my musical terminology is imprecise) of relatively long intervals to be effective. Romantic pieces really work, though- like Ravel’s “Song of India”- and maybe dark, or elegiac melodies (there’s an overture in “TannhÃ¥user” that I’ve heard played on theremin, that makes my hair stand up…)- or something like “Moon River”. It’s like hearing strings with all the bowing strokes going in the same direction… or maybe just one long pull. I’m reminded of a couple of singers who have a quality like that, too- who swoop in and out of their notes- Rosalie Sorrels, and Iris Dement- & I like them, too… ^..^

  • Lumière

    Apophenia

    Apophenia is the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. The term was coined in 1958 by Klaus Conrad, who defined it as the “unmotivated seeing of connections” accompanied by a “specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness”.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apophenia

    Apophenia: In psychology, the perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated things. Apophenia can be a normal phenomenon or an abnormal one, as in paranoid schizophrenia when the patient sees ominous patterns where there are none.

  • Lumière

    Oops there it is – the errant post – did you get the connection to the theremin?

    I hope not.

    Looking forward to hearing this show !

  • Ben

    I think remember hearing Auld Lang Sine done in a sawlike theremin voice once, or is that the memory of a lingering echo the following morning? Jimmy Page’s live performance of Whole Lotta Love from the Song Remains the Same was where I heard/saw the theremin first used outside of the Double Header Creature Features. The theremin looks as otherworldly in performance as it sounds, just check out Jon Spencer. Looking forward to the show!

  • I cant pass up this chance to share a photo of a kitten on my bob moog etherwave theremin kit…

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/tacoma-cartoonist/143197069/

    enjoy!

  • rahbuhbuh

    I’ve seen Jon Bernhardt play “theremin carols” yearly at the December Boston Bazaar Bizarre craft/gift market. It has become the only holiday music I look forward to besides The Waitresses’ “christmas wrapping”

    http://bazaarbizarre.org/boston_stuff/entertainment.html

  • Correction! The theremin-like music in “Good Vibrations” was NOT created by a theremin, as commonly assumed. The instrument used by the Beach Boys during the Pet Sounds sessions is called a Tannerin. They are distinctly different instruments. Quoting from http://www.tompolk.com:

    “The Tannerin is an electronic instrument that produces a pure sine wave, variable over three or four octaves. It is played by sliding a knob along the length of the instrument, on some models starting and stopping the tone with a contact switch located on the pitch knob and operated by one’s forefinger.”

    I’m a stickler for the distinction. It’s a lot more difficult to be consistent with a theremin than a tannerin, believe me, I know! : ) Best to everyone at Open Source, I love this show. ~Meredith Yayanos

  • kemerseon

    I just thought I would mention Keller Williams on this thread. Keller is known to many as a “God amongst men” with his insanely wonderful musical abilities. He performs solo with a loop machine and really is able to just about anything. One of the things that I have seen recently is how he is able tow work a theremin into his shows. There are many live recordings of his shows freely available on archive org and you can find some there, b ut I will send along a single link to a song where towards the end of the song he rocks out on the theremin. A really great instrument that I truly think takes a great deal of talent and practice to make sound good. But its great. More people should play it :)

    http://ia331324.us.archive.org/1/items/kw2005-10-22.flac16/kw2005-10-22d01t09_vbr.mp3

  • ralph638s

    The thereminist Pamelia Kurstin will be performing Monday night, April 23, at the Enormous Room (upstairs from Central Kitchen) on Mass Ave in Central Sq, Cambridge. The music goes from 10-1, her set will likely start at 11. 21+, no cover.

    http://www.myspace.com/pameliakurstin

    http://collect.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=music.showDetails&Band_Show_ID=12270065&friendid=59787403

  • esc

    I’m looking forward to this show …

    I remember playing my first theremin around Christmas one year and scaring one of the ferrets enough that she fled into the tree refusing to come out. I now practice with headphones.

    The other day a plumber looked at the theremin in the front room and commented -“oh, you’re a thereminist too…” yikes!

  • “The thereminist Pamelia Kurstin will be performing Monday night, April 23, at the Enormous Room”

    Hey, maybe we can have an ROS outing!

  • Chelsea

    Allison and Ralph368s,

    Thanks for pointing out Pamelia Kurstin’s upcoming performance.

    I’m trying to get Pamelia Kurstin into the studio for this show when she’s in town. The ROS outing can start at WGBH and end at the Enormous Room.

  • hurley

    Lumière: A funny mistake, or a very subtle joke indeed. Thanks for the new word in either case.

  • huff

    definitely need to check out the live version of whole lotta love as mentioned above….awesome. Also check out a band called Fishbone for more popular usage of the instrument….check out the 2000 album “Psychotic Friend and Nuttwerks”….it has theremin on every song. Also the Shostakovitch movie soundtrack stuff is great.

  • I was discussing the theremin with a friend who had recently sold his. I told him that playing it felt like being asleep, and he said that he had, in fact, fallen asleep while playing it before.

  • ndj

    How about a Nintendo Wii theremin hack! For those who were living in a cave this past Christmas, the new Nintendo Wii was THE gift to get or receive no matter your age. It uses wireless controllers called “wii-motes” that the player waves around to interact with a game. I played with a Wii for the first time today, and it is amazingly sensitive to motion in any direction or orientation. It appears that someone has in fact already started to create a wii theremin program – let’s hope they can bring it along to the point that anyone with a wii could try their hand (or hands) at the theremin.

    I wonder if you could track down http://www.youtube.com/charytanaka in time for the show to ask him about his Wii version of the theremin? Here is one of his videos of his digital theremin:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mTL934OSYb4

  • Most people are neglecting to mention that the theremin is nearly impossible to play. The only true master is said to be Leo Theremin’s daughter, would could play classical melodies with it. So many others just play “with” the theremin, however that’s cool too in my opinion. A good friend of mine is a Thereminist since the 1980’s, http://www.myspace.com/jupiter2, check out their song “Dead Girlfriend” on that page.

    Yes, it’s true, Good Vibrations is technically not a THeremin, just a theremin like instument. There are a couple other Beach Boy’s songs that may have an actual Theremin… on Pet Sounds….. someone have a listen to “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” and let me know if you think it’s a Theremin. Sounds like the wildly hard to control sound of the real thing.

  • I recently saw the great David Thomas and Pere Ubu in concert and sure enough, the keyboard player, Robert Wheeler, plays a theremin in several songs. He milks it for maximum dramatic effect, putting body and soul into every soaring crescendo and sustaining vibrato of the Ubu opus. A fun fact concerning Wheeler: « Robert has been President of the Edison Birthplace Association in Milan, Ohio, since early 1980s. A great-great-grand nephew of Thomas Alva Edison, he lives with his family on Thomas Edison’s sister’s farm in Milan. » A real electronic pedigree. A photo of him jamming on his theremin @ http://www.ubuprojex.net/bio.html#rw.

  • I spoke with Chelsea via phone on March 2, but didn’t think to look for this thread until now!

    rahbuhbuh: Thanks for the props.

    Marc: Leon Theremin didn’t have any children. You’re likely thinking either of Clara Rockmore, who he courted romantically during the 1920s when he lived in New York, or Lydia Kavina, his grand-niece, who is one of the top thereminists performing today.

    Chelsea: Thanks for the Lothars namedrop. Let me know if you need help reaching Pamelia. Coincidentally, The Lothars will be performing that same week, April 29, at P.A.’s Lounge in Somerville.

  • Thanks Jon B, I guess did mean the grand neice, here in Russia, I remember seeing him and her together on channel 1, it was many years ago, but I still remember it. My larger point was there were and are very few masters of the theremin or even very few who play it as a,um, melodic musical instument. Most people I see or hear playing it use it for it’s ablility to quickly slide trough a blur of notes.

  • VeritasRox

    So excited for this show! I watched the Electronic Odyssey documentary and was glued to the screen. Good luck making your own theremin!

    It would be great to further explore the links between the theremin, electronic music, and dance. Theremin’s wife was part of a dance company that experimented with choregraphy generated in the midst of a theremin-like electronic field. Performing such dances demanded incredible awareness and body control, as slight variations in position would be registered as significant variations in sound. I think this full body instrumentation provides an interesting counter-example to what I tend to think of as the button pushing and computer controlled norm of “electronic music” (i.e. where the physical skill of “playing” an instrument tends to diminish).

    Any other theremin-inspired thoughts on the connection between human motion and sound manipulation in the electronic age?

  • I’ve been thinking about Portishead – the band that is. I still remember hearing their first album, Dummy, for the first time. It was a promo cd lying around the radio station (WHRB) on a pile presumably to be discarded. I was frankly stunned when I listened to it.

    The first element of their appeal was a voice that seemed slight, ethereal and perhaps pained (or at the very least emotional). The lyrics come from some kind of turmoil deep inside Beth Gibbons. The drums are in the hip-hop vein, yet laidback and lazy. Geoff Barrows added all sorts of sonic niceties that befit a Bristol crew – samples of film dialogue, Isaac Hayes snippets, scratches, guitars and moog keyboards that made you feel you were in an old-fashioned movie theatre screening a film noir.

    Of course we know that this became a “genre” and record companies quickly labeled works of this type “trip hop” that was a subplot to the 90s and indeed Portishead’s music would be picked up in movies.

    There wasn’t a cover booklet with the cd which meant that it took some investigation to figure out the other ingredient that had so tickled my ear.

    The secret ingredient, the secret sauce, of the group was the theremin: it appears on perhaps a third of their songs – hence the cinematic connection.

    Listening to Portishead play Mysterons is unnerving. You can hear the audience reaction in the live version on the Roseland/NYC album. The music is well, how to put it, haunting, mournful and more. The essence of the noir aesthetic or cinematography translated to sound. This is all due to the theremin.

    To me the theremin straddles worlds, creeping up on you and drawing your attention to something that lurks beneath or that dwells in the shadows.

    In a dark time such as this, I find comfort in the shadows.

    Hmm. This was meant to be a one paragraph plug for considering playing a snippet of Portishead if you go ahead with the show… I forgot myself. Anyway perhaps its worth blogging at length in my digs…

  • Or you can just do it with your hands. Want to learn how?

    Go here: The Art of Hand Whistling http://artotems.com/hand_dance.aspx

  • Ok… I remember that someone was talking about making Sam play his theremin to the show’s theme or something like that, which may impossible, however I think it’s possible for him to “jam” on the outro, that would sound and everyone would have had all hour to get used to the cat call tones of the instument.

    Here’s some trivia: has anyone mentioned yet that the Theremin is the only instument that can be played without touching it, or for that matter any contact at all?

  • js

    Greta has graciously guided me through cyberspace – my perception of this magnificently orchestrated format – to place my pitch-a-show suggestion right here even though I feel like I am shouting from a crowded car on the RedLine.

    Here goes anyway.

    I am a psychotherapist and author whose book (Standing Up for Yourself) explores some provocative questions that have arisen after years of therapeutic work with a diverse population of addicts, schizophrenics, bipolars as well as depressed, inhibited “ordinary” people immobilized by self-doubt and fear.

    Chemical imbalance can be a medical fact or an emotional hoax, allowing some patients to pitch the idea that they can’t manage their lives because of an organix dysfunction or inherited predisposition for, say, alcohol and/or drugs.

    The recurring chant is, “Well, my Dad was an alcoholic and HIS Dad was an alcoholic, so I guess it’s in the genes.” They don’t like it when I ask, “Have you inherited a genetic predisposition to alcoholism/substance abuse or have you really inherited the pathology of your addicted parent and thus are susceptible to the illness?”

    I have put aside for the moment the horror that took place at Virginia Tech because my query relates to irresponsibility and the delight in blaming others. We all saw what hate can look like and how easy it is to try to simply anhilate

    whatever we find contemptuous instead of asking, “Well, how might I myself achieve some of these worldly goods that these rich, spoiled students have?”. Instead of earning attention the hard way, as in real effort, our young Korean man chose the route of infamy as an assured path in American history.

    My patients have not selected such extreme measures for avoiding contact with deep rooted, powerful emotions but their unwillingness to own feelings of hate, resentment, jealousy…and so on…is the same. Self-destruction at any level can injure more than one person and there is the luxury of glimpsing guilt in the other person(s).

    So. What do you think? Chemical imbalance or learned helplessness?

  • markbellis3

    Hi,

    Two other instruments that you can play without touching – Coke bottle and the jug !

  • BJ

    Pamelia,

    I’m a Rockmore fan but you rock more! You’re not only the Heifetz but the Yo Yo Ma of the theramin.

  • adamviva

    I’d love to hear a show about the musical saw: The poor man’s Theremin. Similar tone, similar difficulties, but also gorgeous in, as opposed to near, the right hands.

  • rimcgill

    Thank you for a fascinating program. Until tonight I’d not heard of this instrument–though I’ve certainly heard it many times. Ms. Pamelia’s performance was superb, but I can’t help wondering why she was so giddy. Suposedly cell phones and high tension lines affect our brain waves; perhaps the Theremin does too??

  • This is a great show – once again I wish I had paid attention to the schedule so I could post in advance.

    I often use a graphics tablet to drive computer-based instruments – one of the modes is very “theramin-like” in that the vertical direction of the tablet is continuous pitch changes.

    http://www.ptank.com/amar_music if anyone is interested…

    I find such an instrument lends itself to very “continuous” or expressive music, as oppose to precise rhythms…

  • That “theremin bass” in Summertime towards the end of the show was great. I have heard a lot of theremins before, but never used in the role of a jazz string bass…

  • That was sublime

  • Potter

    Now I know I have heard this before and wondered what it was, sort of like voices but not, sort of like whistling but not. That was beautiful! I loved the classical pieces-Debussy especially.

    I love the Pamelia Kurstin’s personality! What a sweetheart!

  • And let’s not forget the ondes Martenot. When it was first created in the 1920s, it worked and sounded a lot like a Theremin. Then the inventor decided to attach a keyboard to it. This made it easier to control, and composers began to embrace it. One of my favorite symphonies of all time, Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila Symponie, relies heavily on the ondes, and other composers, including Milhaud, Honegger, Varese and Boulez incorporated it into their works.

  • You know I love you guys, but zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…. This show idea was a snoozer.

  • fintushel

    Great show! Many thanks.

    About the use of theremin in education, check out this little demo. (I’m a performance artist who works with children in the schools. Took a lesson with Pamelia, and have been playing for a couple of years.

    http://tinyurl.com/2jad9n

    (For the adult stuff, see http://tinyurl.com/2m5nny)

  • The music was sublime. The only thing I wish you had provided was some information for the theremin upstarts among us. Since a good theremin instructor is not as readily available as a tuba coach, where should we begin?

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  • Discussed was the quality of the sound of the theremin .. noir, surreal narrative, vibrato, space exploration, drugged up, outside of time, high smaltz; portamento, little glissandos. The theremoan .. all offered up.

    I guess I’d say it is like a violin on electricity. The picture I get when listening: electrical light on filament in vaccuum tubes in analog radio.

    Write up on Moon Traveller Herald Blog

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