Articles

The Theremin

Thereminists and theremin enthusiasts have a tough time being anything other than perpetually fascinated and enamored of our favorite electronic instrument. For myself, the magic factor encompasses a) It's elegant simplicity ? there's a wonderful video segment of the late Dr. Robert Moog, wide-eyed and smiling, saying that if you look inside Theremin's early instruments "there's nothing there!" b) You're not touching anything when you play! c) Playing gives rise to a level and quality of concentration that is entirely unique to the experience; d) The Theremin is so sensitive to external conditions that we ascribe behavior to it ? this anthropomorphism eventually imbues it with a full-blown personality (or is it just me?); e) regardless of the type of music or sounds you produce, spectators are immediately enthralled. The theremin has been used with full orchestras, electronic ensembles, for movies, TV, rock and roll records, and countless other ways.

The one subject rarely, if ever, touched upon (and again, maybe it's just me ): the theremin has got to be the silliest instrument ever created. It's essentially a box with two antennae that makes noise corresponding to the slightest movement. A theremin produces only a single, continuous tone. That's all. To be fair, all musical instruments are totally surreal.

It's just that we're so used to the sight of them, that we take their appearances for granted. Whether you pluck, strum, hit, blow, bow or spit, the physical movements that instruments require are downright bizarre. That said, the movements demanded of a thereminist are the most bizarre of all. Your two arms are moving in strangely coordinated opposition; the left arm moves up and down, the right arm move backward and forward. To many who witness it, it strikes them as the electronic equivalent of rubbing your tummy and patting your hand and vice versa.

The sight can be both intriguing and a bit creepy due to the attitude and stance of the player. Some thereminist's mouths move in very strange ways. Others adopt what's been referred to as the "tai chi" stance and their bodies do move in a fluid back and forth pattern. The weirdest aspects tend to be the facial expression. For those familiar with the video footage of Clara Rockmore, she looks almost half asleep while her magnificent hands take focus. Other players display a more glazed-over, deer-in-the-headlights stare that can be very disconcerting.

Still others bring to their presentation style the look and stiff movement of an incredulous zombie. Ultimately, there's no escaping it; you look like you're a bug-eyed weirdo who's sculpting the air and swatting flies. In virtually every theremin-centric forum on the web, topic threads are being tied into knots.

While in some way all thereminists seem to agree that the instrument is suited to just about any musical style, the arguments over what type of music should be played and even what constitutes music go on and on and on. Theremaniacs speculate/argue/elucidate/pontificate and generally engage in huge hubbubs of this sort. Is experimental noise any less artistic than playing classical music? Is playing traditionally notated music denying the theremin it's true birthright as an instrument that must never be bound by established forms? Oh well. silly debates for a silly instrument.

Every instrument ever invented has been used in every conceivable way. Playing a cymbal with a fiddle bow may have caused a stir way back when, but no one's still fretting over it. We live in a time when all of the artistic rules governing every medium have already been broken. The theremin is here, like all other tools in all of the arts, to be used, abused, revered and reviled and put to whatever purpose the artist can devise. The only standards that are valid are those the artist stipulates.

Kip Rosser has been playing the theremin for ten years, delighting and intriguing his audiences with a wholly original mix of demonstration, comedy, performance art and first-rate musicianship. He is also a member of both the Martian Radio Orchestra and the Electro-Music Chamber Orchestra. For photos, music samples, animations, reviews and upcoming appearances, please visit: http://www.performancekr.com/theremin.html.



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