April 23, 2007

White Castle Thereminist Speaks

White Castle Thereminist Speaks

Jon Bernhardt, of The Lothars, has had a crazy few months. Over a year ago he posted a YouTube video of himself playing “Video Killed the Radio Star” on his Moog Theremin. One day, he started getting a whole lot of comments on the video, and it turned out that an LA casting agent was looking for him. A few weeks later, Jon was flown out for an all-expenses-paid trip to California, where he sang and theremin-ed — this time in front of a TV camera, for some new commercials for White Castle. You can read the story of Jon’s big break and his whirlwind LA adventure on his blog.

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? Tom, the senior producer of the creative team, told me it was a little bit of both.

Back in October, they wrote a script where an actor says that he likes White Castle so much, he’s written a song about it. He then plays his song on the most wacky instrument imaginable, like a ukulele. They poked around YouTube, stumbled upon my video, and decided that a theremin would be perfect. It was even more flattering, but strange, to think that these ad people in the Midwest had been talking about me for four months before the casting call went out looking for me.

Jon Bernhardt, A Somervillain Thereminist in White Castle’s Court (Day 2, Electric Boogaloo), Wobbly Music, February 20, 2007.

I called Jon up to chat, and to get his state-of-the-theremin report. He’s been playing for over ten years, and — like our guest Pamelia Kursten — he was originally turned on to the theremin by “Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey,” the 1994 documentary about the instrument and its inventor.

I remember seeing the documentary back in ’96. I loved the movie; I was totally entranced by it. At the end they had a guy do a demonstration, and I thought: where can I get one of those things? Bob Moog’s company had just started making them available. I bought one and never looked back.

Jon Bernhardt, in a conversation with Open Source, April 22, 2007.

I also asked Jon a question we’ve been asking each other here at Open Source headquarters: is there something inherently silly or spooky about the theremin’s sound, or is it just our associations with the instrument after 50 years of sci-fi soundtracks?

I think a lot of it is the associations. Originally it wasn’t like that; people like Clara Rockmoore in the twenties were trying to promote it as a concert instrument. On the other hand, the instrument does lend itself to the [spooky] sound, but there isn’t anything inherent about it.

I was talking with Herbert Deutsch in 2005. He’s a New York composer who helped Bob Moog develop the synthesizers in the sixties. He pointed out that the saxophone was around for 100 years before it really found its voice in jazz in the twenties; before that it didn’t really have its own voice. The theremin is at that stage now, it’s definitely still looking for its own voice.

Jon Bernhardt, in a conversation with Open Source, April 22, 2007.

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