Thursday, August 02, 2007

More Theremin in 1928

Further into the February 4, 1928 issue of The New Yorker, the talk of Leon Theremin's New York recital continues. After the initial one about pulling music from "the ether," another talks about Rachmaninoff's response to the show (intrigued but not delighted), and finally -- in the weekly "Musical Events" column -- we get a bit more substance:
Radio experts can tell you that Professor Theremin has taken the familiar howl of an unbalanced receiving set and persuaded it to play Schubert's "Ave Maria." The result, which seems to us more important than the mechanics involved in obtaining it, is a tone which varies from something like cello timbre to the vibrations of the musical saw.

The Theremophone is still in a transitory stage, we hear, and it has obvious disadvantages. As the flow of tone is continuous, it is impossible to avoid at least a suggestion of scooping, and there are not yet Teremophonists sufficiently skilled to play rapid or complicated passages... Nevertheless, here is a new musical instrument, which is based on the fundamental principle underlying all instruments and which may, in less time than one might fancy, become part of the orchestra. If this seems romantic, so once upon a time was the notion that the clarinet belonged in good symphonic society.
Romantic, yes. Clara Rockmore did her best to lend credibility to the instrument but it never joined the clarinet in regular orchestras. Theremins did show up in sci-fi film scores, and later in scattered pop songs...though much music retroactively credited to the Theremin was actually performed on the Ondes-Martenot, much to my personal disillusion.

I have seen Theremin and Theremin-ish instruments played; they keep on popping up at Legendary Pink Dots shows in one form or another. It's beautiful to hear and even more beautiful to watch, but does seem to lack diversity and still can't be played at any speed or accuracy (unless, again, you're Clara Rockmore).


Eli said...

Paia make an inexpensive kit to build your own theremin, with a whole bunch of voltage outputs that you can use to control an analog synth, or a digital one through some sort of MIDI interface. I might have to try it some time.

The main problem with the theremin, of course, is that it's hard to be accurate when playing something you can't even touch... which is why the Ondes Martenot ended up used on more studio recordings.

Personally, I'd love one of these puppies.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Jeez, that puppy is INCREDIBLE! Especially in the hands of somebody who really understands it (like the guy in the video). I assume he's looking at those tiny markings to figure out which keys he's playing.

I haven't actually seen somebody play an Ondes Martenot; the pictures tend to be a bit weird. But yes, the lack of tactile feedback plus the very finicky fingering must make the Theremin difficult to be "accurate" with.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this video. I had the pleasure of meeting Clara Rockmore years ago - an amazing lady she was.

All the best,

'Saw Lady'