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JMT 1.03 The Theremin: Ether Music

Jane's Musical Takeaway
bits and bobs and my two cents

Episode 3: The Theremin: Ether Music

You've probably heard it many times, but with the advent of more sophisticated synthesizers and complex electronic instruments, the sound of the Theremin is no longer as noticeable as it was when it was first invented in the 1920s - or even in the 1940s-50s when it became ubiquitous with Hollywood soundtracks for mystery, thriller, and sci-fi films. (see also Meet the Theremin)

The first thing you need to know is that you play the instrument by waving your hands. Literally. No keys, valves, or pistons; no strings, bows, slides, or reeds; no pesky buttons - sounds amazingly easy, right? Actually, it's amazingly difficult - but don't let that stop you. Learning to play an instrument is always half the fun, so long as you don't expect to become a concert artist overnight. Here's a brief introduction to the theremin, featuring Carolina Eyck:

The theremin began as a classical instrument, and recordings are plentiful. You can also find it in Russian surf rock recordings by Messer Chups, in television and film soundtracks, and even in the Beach Boys song Good Vibrations (although they cheat, using an easier to play variation called the tannerin - but who can blame them?!) I thought it would be fun to see the theremin in action, so I've chosen Lydia Kavina's live performance of the theme from Doctor Who:

Jane's Musical Takeaway:

  • 1. Here's a link to the original television theme, impressively created without the theremin, but you'll see why the instrument is a perfect fit. As you saw in the first video, melody notes are played with the right hand, near the upright antenna, and the volume is controlled with the left hand, near the loop.
  • 2. Almost immediately, just after Ms Kavina begins to play, we have a signature theremin move at 30 seconds. The melody begins, ooo WHEE ooo, then the melody rises and drops suddenly to a lower note, which Kavina accomplishes by making a fist and pulling it horizontally towards her chest. It's as if she has hold of an invisible string, or a rubber band, and is stretching it back. There's an even better view of this at 48 secs, when the melody repeats just after the Celtic harp player begins to walk.
  • 3. Beginning at 1.27 (after the walking harp again!). you can see a scale (a series of notes) move lower in pitch. Kavina brings her hand horizontally towards her chest again, but in small increments. It's a brilliant example of the tiny motions required to play this instrument. If your movements are not carefully controlled, you wind up getting the same results as Jerry Lewis in The Delicate Delinquent.
  • 4. There are a lot of special effects and quirky electronic instruments being played on stage, and yet they never overpower the theremin's melody line. Finally Lydia gets to play some special effects by attacking the antenna quickly, producing several high-pitched squeals beginning at 2.40, which she continues almost until the end of the performance.
  • 5. Don't let the ending catch you off guard (and if you did, rewind!); after all of the pyrotechnics on stage, Lydia Kavina does two things: she makes the pitch go up, but makes the volume come down. It's a very cool effect because the higher she plays, the softer the notes become. Watch carefully, from 3.09 to the end at 3.14, and you'll see her right hand get closer and closer (bringing the pitch higher) and her left hand get lower and lower, until it drops into the loop silencing the theremin completely.

The theremin is so much more than special effects; this 20th century instrument is capable of playing nearly any style of music.

Find the Theremin!

Theremins 101
Theremin World
Facebook: Carolina Eyck
Facebook: Lydia Kavina

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