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August 13, 2005

Music's ugly duckling

I see the New York Times has taken notice of the theremin, the precursor to the synthesizer, the MIDI, and a host of other electronic musical instruments.

The other main "spiritual" ancestor of synthesized or computerized music, the accordion, was, in the first days after its invention, roundly reviled as a mechanical monstrosity. Now, despite a bunch of accordion jokes, it has become a true folk instrument. Cultures from Argentina to Norway to Indonesia have their own indigenous forms of the instrument.

Not so the theremin, whose glissando sound is too ethereal to easily lend itself to dance music, and which cannot (to my knowledge) play more than a single note at a time. The theremin player's movements are constrained by the machine: move a hand slightly wrong, and the audience will hear the result. The technical limitations Lev Theremin built into his invention pretty much confines the instrument to contempative music in which the audience is spectator raather than boisterous participant. Think of it this way: The theremin is Apollonian, the accordion Dionysan.

Except, of course, that the theremin has been typecast due to its slightly spooky, at-one-point futuristic sound, and is now mainly thought of as accompaniment to badly executed horror movies.

That's a shame, really, because in the right hands - or from the right hands - the theremin is capable of surprising beauty. (The scary movie association may cause giggles at first. It did for me. But just keep listening.)

Posted by Chris Clarke at August 13, 2005 08:33 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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I've loved the sound of both the theremin and the ondes martenot -- especially the latter as it was used in Messiaen's Turangalila Symphonie. In my music collection the theremin makes an appearance in a "kooky" but thoroughly charming Capitol Records CD called Space Capades.

Posted by: Elissa Malcohn at August 14, 2005 01:00 AM
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Did you see that documentary about the theremin? I can't remember it exactly but the creator of the theremin was kidnapped and taken back to the USSR at the height of the intrument's popularity here. He's reunited in the movie with his protege - I forget her name - who hadn' seen him since his abduction. She takes him around her apartment to show him mementos from her life, their live, her career - it's all very show and tell. He tries to say something personal to her about his abduction, or their life before the abduction, I can't remember which. Anyway, it's very emotional for him and she very quietly and subtly tells him to wait until the cameras are off and then she seemlessly continues the tour for the movie's benefit. It's gut wrenching.

On the brighter side - my kids have a long plastic tube you're supposed to swing in circles to get it to make a noise. The noise sounds a lot like a theremin. Prettty cool.

Posted by: eRobin at August 14, 2005 05:45 AM
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My first reaction was: "Sarah Brightman?"

It' interesting how instruments evolve and survive. The guitar has become one of the most popular instruments in the world, but who listens to the lute any more? I'd like very much to learn to play the Greek bouzouki, but I haven't a clue where to find anyone here in Japan who even knows what it is.

I once saw a street musician in Boston playing an electronic version of the African finger harp. What an amazing sound.

Posted by: butuki at August 14, 2005 09:45 PM
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No discussion of theremins is complete without a link to The Lothars. Solution to the one-note-at-a-time problem: get a bunch of them. Real music, check out the mp3's.

Posted by: Jim Flannery at August 14, 2005 11:29 PM
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You need to watch this documentary on Leon Theremin... His story is absolutely amazing.

Posted by: craig at August 15, 2005 08:56 PM
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Steve Nieve played a theremin, or some variation of a theremin, on several songs during Elvis Costello's previous tour. Sounded like rock to me(in contrast to, say, the pop of "Good Vibrations").

Posted by: Brian Santo at August 16, 2005 11:38 AM
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A shorter version of a comment which apparently was eaten yesterday: The protege that eRobin mentions above was Clara Rockmore, and she was a phenomenal musician. Rockmore is the thereminist in the mp3 linked to in Chris' post, and another snippet of her playing Rachmaninoff's haunting Vocalise can be found here. (A full recording of Vocalise performed by a different thereminist is at this site)

Posted by: the_bone at August 16, 2005 02:42 PM
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