Thursday, April 24, 2008

Space Playing

I am an amateur Theremin player and enthusiast. Here is today's lesson in playing The-World's-First-Musical-Instrument-You-Don't-Touch the incorrect way. Factual inaccuracies in my account of the Theremin can be taken up with my mother. PS: I am fully aware that some new Theremin models switch their right-hand-pitch and left-hand-volume antennae around, so leave me alone, dad.

RIGHT HAND
If you watch professional Theremin players, 99% of them play the pitch antenna with a loose fist, making an 'O' out of the thumb and other fingers, changing notes by subtle adjustments of the wrist (the universal jacking-off gesture) and extending the pinky finger to hit notes just out reach. This approach makes the most sense, since it affords the player easier sensitivity in hitting pitches. I do not play this way. Instead, I aim the back of my fingers to the antenna (like I gon' slap it!) and, with all four long fingers creating a wall, adjust the pitch by moving all four fingers in unison along the 'hinge' that is my knuckles, only moving my arm closer or farther away when the fingers have reached the end of their range.

LEFT HAND
The volume antenna is the younger, underused brother of the pitch antenna. After all, the fun lies in making the 'whoooop' sound, not in making it quieter. But the volume antenna is the key to those subtle moments that distinguish the Theremin tourists from the golden buddhas (???). Playing the volume antenna is counter-intuitive because you play with your left hand raised, dropping it only when you want a decrescendo. It is also used to distinguish one note from the next...otherwise, using just the right hand, the Theremin would emit one long, continuous, whiny sine-wave. For non-math nerds: That's bad. Well, depending on your artistic vision. If, for example, you are playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star with the designated "Twin-kle, twin-kle, li-ttle star..." syllable breaks, the left hand dips down quickly right on the 'N' in "Twin-" and lifted immediately in time for "-kle". If you follow this pattern to speed, it's as if you're throwing your left hand toward your left shoulder on each note/syllable, causing your elbow to go out and all the little children at the birthday party to cry or scream at you.

HOLDING STILL
If you watch Clara Rockmore play Theremin, her upper body is utterly still while her arms from the elbows down gracefully dance to and from the antennae with super-controlled movement. More rarely taught is that you can also play a Theremin with wild abandon when you have no patience for exact pitches and it will deliver sounds that match the intensity of your spastic movements. Yeah, I'm talking to you, spaz.

EXPERIMENTING
For all the melodies that can be played on Theremin ("sickeningly sweet", says John Cage), it's the wacked-out sounds I like. You can make old school record-scratch sounds by waving your right hand quickly by the pitch antenna, going in and out of pitch range so quickly that the sound just becomes a 'whoosh'. I've been using other objects to affect the pitch in an A/B fashion. For example, one of my favorite items to use is a harmonica. By placing it on the Theremin box near the pitch antenna, it does nothing on its own, but when touching the end of the harmonica (the end furtherst away from the pitch antenna), the harmonica becomes a conductor of body electricity and suddenly, the pitch jumps as many increments as you can fit into the length of the harmonica. So, hand by itself is the A note, hand on harmonica is the B note. By A/B-ing rapidly, it sounds like a flute doing a trill! Or a really annoying Theremin! Regardless, it creates great visual spectacle, causing the girls to scream and throw their wet panties at my face, which gives me acne. Finally, I've also been hooking the Theremin up to an ocatve pedal, achieving low-end sounds. (Example found in the choruses of this song.)

My Theremin heroes can be found here and here.

12 comments:

Rob said...

I want a cat that plays theremin. I think that would be about the coolest thing ever.

So, step one: acquire theremin...

Hunter said...

Just saying, your theremin playing may be the most amazing thing in Seattle.

Spaz said...

Shut up! I'm telling!

Matthew said...

Well, and then there is this:

http://youtube.com/watch?v=mW0B1sipLBI

His sounds much more distinctly duck-like than anything I've heard you playing though. Maybe he just needs to turn the Duck switch to "off".

I can't remember if you blogged that video already or not. There have been vodka tonics. (Vodkas tonic?)

he's a one man band said...

My favorite is when you're playing your guitar with both hands and playing your theramin with your foot or elbow!

I went to school but it didn't help said...

um...I meant therEmin not therAmin.

oops. that's what I get for typing before coffee.

not an engineer, with two cats. said...

I've discovered independently that cats do seem to have a distinct affection towards theremins. I think you should all seven of you find as many cats as you can, set up as many theremins as possible, let all the cats loose at once and record the resulting mayhem.

Kind of like the 100th monkey, but with cats. And theremins...

Rob said...

I approve of this idea. That would be amazing.

Michael Vick said...

You could charge a lot of money for an event like that.

yea me! said...

actually, #6, there is ongoing debate as to whether it's spelled theremin or theramin, so you're right. sort of.

Anonymous said...

http://www.skunky.net/

smart kitty said...

I think he's playing "Lady of Spain."