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It Sounds Weird

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Trekking through the woods alone and in the dark, you creep through a thick fog that fills every inch of space between the night sky and the very ground upon which you walk. Suddenly a light flashes over your head. The neon-green streak then hovers above the trees around you. Is it a spirit, or perhaps something extraterrestrial? All you know for certain is that it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. As you become fearful with anticipation, the light begins to take shape and emits a sound resembling somewhat of a deep cry. It’s as if the air were weeping for you, knowing you’ll never be home again.

To the average person, the sound of a theremin is synonymous with the eerie or the occult. Ever since an extraterrestrial robot stepped out of a spaceship to the amplified electric signals of metal antennae in The Day the Earth Stood Still, the sound of the theremin ingrained itself in the psyches of people living in a time when electric power was becoming widespread and a daily necessity. There was technology furor everywhere and electricity seemed to be the scientific explanation to anything seemingly magical. And so those are the sounds for which the musical instrument is famous.

But the versatile theremin has been typecast worse than Bela Lugosi. Its range and place in history goes beyond moaning ghost noises and ray guns. To find out more about the instrument of spooky sounds, Sky Blue Window spoke to Frank Felice, associate professor of composition, theory and electronic music in the School of Music at the Jordan College of Arts at Butler University. He is also a member of the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS).

Sky Blue Window: What exactly is a theremin?

Frank Felice: The theremin is one of the only instruments in the world that you do not have to touch to produce a musical sound. It is an electronic instrument, meaning that the only way you can play it is if you plug it in and you then amplify it.

Created by the Soviet inventor, Léon Theremin, in the early part of the 20th century, 1929 -- it’s one of the oldest electronic musical instruments still in use. Essentially what happens is there are two antennae that extend out from the instrument, and they produce a kind of electromagnetic field. How you disturb that field with your body will determine what the pitch is going to be of or what the apparent loudness is going to be.

Leon Theremin plays the odd-sounding touchless instrument he invented.  - COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
  • Leon Theremin plays the odd-sounding touchless instrument he invented.

SBW: How did it become associated with the otherworldly?

FF: Probably during the 1950s. During that time, post-World War II, a lot of Hollywood studios were starting to do a number of movies that were using science fiction as a means to tell their story. So one of the very first films to use an electronic score, where it was all electronically derived was the movie Forbidden Planet. The score was created by Louis and Bebe Barron, and they invented a number of circuits to create sounds and musical little things, and it was such an otherworldly score that it became very much associated with science-fiction films.

Add into that the otherworldly kind of sound of a radar gun or a laser beam -- somebody had to come up with something that could do that -- that kind of wavering tremolo pitch sort of thing that was not like how a violin would do tremolo or vibrato. The theremin became really uniquely set up to be able to do that, and it sounded like it was not of our planet.

SBW: Does it require a certain sort of talent to pick up a theremin and play anything coherent?

FF: Everybody can play with it, but it is hard to master. Since there is no easy way to determine what pitches you’re going to be playing, most of the time, most of us just end up making fun, weird sounds with it and that’s something it does very well.

SBW: When did you take a liking to the instrument?

FF: I actually became interested in it because of Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. I remember seeing a concert -- The Song Remains the Same, which came around in 1980 or so. During one of the crazy guitar solo things that he was doing, at one point, he stepped over to the side of the stage and started waving his arms around. And there was this -- as you said -- otherworldly sound that was coming out. And, of course, it was going through a large PA system with lots of effects and stuff on it.

At that time, nobody in Missoula, Montana, had one. So I had no ability to see what it actually looked like.

When I got to graduate school at the University of Colorado in the mid-80s, our school had one. It was one of the originals with the big cabinet box with all the tubes and stuff in it, so it was one that might have been an original theremin from the ’30s or early ’40s that were sold in America at that time. It took 10 minutes to warm up and become stable in pitch. I got used to trying to move my hands around it, but I still could never play in tune.

When I came to Butler 17 years ago, the wind ensemble and Robert Grechesky had purchased a theremin for one piece (Eric Whitacre’s Godzilla Eats Las Vegas). I was very happy to find that we had one for our school and we’ve had it in our electronic music studio ever since.

SBW: Are your students ever interested in learning about it?

FF: Yes, quite a bit of them. One or two of the students have taken it very seriously and tried to master playing the theremin from a very straightforward point of view, playing melodies on it, etc.

There was a very early virtuoso of the theremin named Clara Rockmore . She’s playing Russian pieces, like a Tchaikovsky piec,e essentially from a string quartet. She plays it beautifully and there’s a whole CD of her playing this kind of stuff, and it sounds a little bit like a cello that has a very wide, really expressive vibrato, and it’s very well done.

SBW: Would you mind doing a demo?

FF: [He proceeds to demonstrate.] Sure! This is a theremin that’s now made by the Moog Corporation. This particular antenna controls the volume and the other controls the pitch. If I pull my left hand away, it determines how loud or how soft it will be. Much like playing a woodwind instrument where you’re using a burst of air and your tongue to articulate, you can use your left hand to do that.

If you use your right hand to move closer, the pitch goes up. Now the fun part is, if you try to play scales with this, it becomes hard to do. What’s fun about watching Clara Rockmore when she plays, she looks like this mysterious Jewish priestess. She almost stares straight ahead when she plays, and you can see her hands do almost fingerings. While she’s doing this, she articulates each note and her hands work in this really kind of wonderful poetry that I think is just flat-out amazing.

FF: Theremin, I think, was a genius because he understood that if you took a little time, you could become very facile at playing this.

When he invented this, he taught Vladimir Lenin, the first leader of Soviet Russia, how to play it, and he learned how to play it pretty well. I always think it’s funny that, like Bill Clinton playing the saxophone, the leader of Soviet Russia could play the theremin, and actually do it pretty well.

SBW: Is a theremin expensive?

FF: Yes. More than you would expect. You can find toy theremins that are somewhere right around $100 or less. This kind of theremin is really a professional one. I’ve not been able to find any Moog theremins for less than $399.

SBW: Do you think its perception as a spooky instrument is detrimental to understanding it’s place in a city orchester?

FF: Yes, because I think it’s a very expressive instrument, and like any other instrument, if you spend the time practicing it and you master it, you can really do some wonderful melodic things with it. But most of us think of spooky sounds, or the sound from the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations (which is not really a theremin but it’s related to it) and we hear that and think that’s all it’s good for. But there’s some people who play the instrument very well and can do cool things with it.

SBW: Would you rather see the instrument be disassociated from that?

FF: No, not necessarily. I’m really the person who says “use it however you want to use it.” I love that people off the street know what a theremin is. Not bad for somebody who was really a Soviet spy and one of his side-ventures was to invent this instrument, which has made him more famous than his spying ever did.

There is a great documentary on the instrument. And you should check it out. It has a lot of good information on him plus his instrument.

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