19 August 2009

An introduction to Theremin music

Today, kiddlywinks, we shall learn a little bit about the theremin.

You may recognise the word, it may be completely new to you. One thing is certain - you will have heard one being played and it will have sounded quite unlike anything you'd ever experienced before.

Back in the early part of the 20th Century, the Russian government sponsored research into proximity sensors - essentially, electronic devices designed to detect the presence of objects or people without actual physical contact. One of the people working on these proximity sensors was a young chap by the name of Lev Sergeievich Termen, aka, Léon Theremin.

A happy by-product of Theremin's experimentation was a musical instrument based on the heterodyne principal, which is the generation of frequencies by mixing two oscillating waveforms and...oh for God's sake, look, I don't know what any of this means, OK? Ten minutes ago I'd never even heard of the heterodyne principle. I just looked it up on Wikipedia.
Let's cut to the chase: Theremin was very brainy and, using sciency cleverness, he invented a musical instrument which goes 'Woooooo' and, rather egotistically some might say, called it The Theremin.

Right, happy now? Good. Let us continue.

The Theremin became very popular in America in the 1930's, most notably at the hands of Clara Rockmore, who toured the country playing an impressive array of classical pieces.

Due to its otherworldly sound, the Theremin was also used in film soundtracks, particularly Bernard Herrmann's soundtrack to The Day The Earth Stood Still (the original, not that Keanu Reeves abomination) and The Thing From Another World. More recently it was used to great effect in Tim Burton's excellent biopic Ed Wood. This is where you've probably heard the theremin, in a film or TV programme, intended to infer a creepy, sci-fi type feel.

Fortunately, the theremin has been reclaimed since then and is no longer just associated with B-movies. Indeed, there are a large number of contemporary thereminists and composers who are helping to keep interest in this incredible instrument alive.

Theremin Fact! Robert Moog, granddaddy of the synthesiser was directly influenced by the theremin. It appears we have a lot to thank Leon Theremin for.

But enough of my inane rantings. Instead, I present for your listening pleasure a small selection of musical treats incorporating the music of the theremin. Enjoy.

*Please note, these tracks are made available for evaluation/review purposes only. Please do not attempt to download them. Buy the albums instead and support the artists. If you are the copyright owner of any of these tracks and want them to be removed, I will happily do so.*

NOTE: Due to complications caused by the Digital Economy Act, I have removed all music that I do not have permission to share here. Instead, where available, I have linked to a YouTube video of the track.

Bernard Herrmann - The Day The Earth Stood Still - Prelude
A classic 1951 B-movie. If you haven't seen it, do so immediately or at your earliest convenience. Whilst I'm not averse, in principle, to the concept of remakes, this is one of those cases where the 2008 "reimagining" was quite astoundingly bad and should be avoided at all costs. The original is ranked #241 in IMDB's top #250 films.
The composer, Bernard Herrmann, who also scored such films as Cape Fear, North By Northwest, Psycho and Taxi Driver, used two theremins for this movie, one pitched high and one pitched lower. It's an early example of a film soundtrack featuring a largely electronic score.


Howard Shore - Ed Wood - Main Title
This is, quite simply, a fantastic movie. Tim Burton has taken Edward D Wood Jnr, one of the least successful film directors of all time, and woven a biopic around him which is so beautiful and rich that, for a while, you are compelled to seek out Ed Wood's films and give them a look yourself. If you do so, like I did, you will soon become rather disillusioned as you gradually realise that there's a very specific reason he is widely considered the worst director in history...
But Howard Shore's music is wonderful here. So emotive of the era. Listen and enjoy.

Clara Rockmore - Song of Grusia
Rachmaninov's Song of Grusia performed by Clara Rockmore. This, ladies and gents, is theremin playing at its finest.
Rockmore was widely regarded as the greatest thereminist in the world, and was instrumental in its evolution, working closely with Theremin to make a number of improvements to its operation and range. The world of theremin music owes her a great debt.

Barbara Buchholz - Rindenblinde
Barbara Buchholz is a master student of Lydia Kavina, the grandniece of Leon Theremin. She has been a huge influence in the resurgence of the theremin (although, for many, it has never really gone away) and has found many new applications in a variety of contemporary music.


Portishead - Mysterons
Ah, Portishead. Hugely popular at one point, they still hold a place in my heart. Indeed, if you haven't heard Beth Gibbons album 'Out of season' I wholeheartedly recommend you seek it out. Dark, brooding, intensely sad stuff. Or, as a friend of mine described it "music to cut your wrists to". Harumph.
Anyway, Mysterons is one of Portishead's most well known songs and has been used many times in TV and film. Its inclusion here may be seen as controversial because they didn't actually use a theremin when recording this, plumping for a synthesiser instead. Despite that, I feel it should be included simply because it's such a darn good song.

The Faraday Trippers - Andante Misterioso
A couple of weeks ago, when this blog post was in its formative stages, I was on the hunt for theremin music that was somewhat esoteric and challenging. A quick message via Twitter, using the #theremin hashtag, and I'd received a few extremely helpful replies. One came from a chap at Theremin World which gave me lots of interesting leads to follow up and, indeed, made me give careful consideration to actually buying a theremin myself.
Another tweet came from @PatTwit, who's one half of the excellent Faraday Trippers.
These guys are a theremin duo harking from Los Angeles and their album 'The Airburst Suite" is, well, amazing. Indeed, I can do no better than directly quote a review which says,
"In their hands, the theremin is neither a twinky novelty nor a fossilized icon of 20th century modernism, but a portal to a hypnotic and disorienting alternate universe. Their debut album opens with a roar, the blasting churn of the 23-minute “Adagio Furioso,” then creeps into the luminous and haunting fog of the “Andante Misterioso,” before igniting the trans-dimensional slowburn of the “Largo Molto Agitato.” With a sound every bit as experimental and psychedelic as their name implies, the Faraday Trippers ride their chosen instrument through new expanses of netherworldly, otherworldly free improv and drone."
Doesn't that make you want to go out and buy it? I did and can't stop listening to the damn thing. Best £6 I ever spent. If you take nothing else from this meandering post, at the very least go and invest in a copy of their album. You will be all the richer for it.
They very kindly gave me permission to include an excerpt from the album on this blog, so that's precisely what I'm going to do. It's excellent. In fact, *cough, cough* you could call it ThereWIN.

That's all for now, but please be aware that I've barely scratched the surface of theremin music in this post. Seek some out. Immediately.

If anyone has any other theremin-related musical goodness that they'd like to share, leave a comment.

EDIT: After I posted this, I realised that I'd missed an important part of the theremin experience - actually seeing one being played.

For that reason, here's a video of Lydia Kavina playing Debussy's 'Claire De Lune'. Hope you enjoy it watching it as much as I did.

3 August 2009

A Selection of Soundtracks

I've been listening to some film soundtracks lately and thought it'd be a nice idea to share a few of them with you. There's no real rhyme nor reason to these selections, they're just pieces of music that I quite like from a variety of films, some odd, some rare, most incredible. If, after listening to them, you're intrigued enough to check out some of these movies, great.

Please note: These tracks are made available for evaluation/review purposes only. Please do not attempt to download these tracks - buy the albums instead and support the artists. Right, that's the legal bit done - let's listen to some strange music.

Death Line (US title: Raw Meat)

This is a 1972 horror movie starring Donald Pleasance as the crusty policeman Inspector Calhoun. A number of people start going missing from the London Underground and it transpires that they're being snatched by an inbred cannibal who is the direct descendant of a group of rail workers who were trapped at an uncompleted station years before when the tunnel collapsed. If you haven't seen it, it's worth a look if only for the cannibal who, after years in the darkness with only the sound of tube announcements to break the silence, tries to communicate by using the phrase, "Mind the doooooors..." Awful, schlocky effects, but entertaining nonetheless. Also, if you do track it down, look out for a brief cameo from the maestro of horror, Christopher Lee. I'm led to believe that the only reason for his appearance was so they could mention his name in the publicity, thus drawing in eager fans. The bastards.

Track: Death Line - Main Title

El Topo (The Mole)

This film is mental, yet strangely beautiful and compelling. It hails from the twisted mind of Alejandro Jodorowsky who also brought us the equally bizarre Santa Sangre. Dripping with occult and religious symbolism, El Topo features some of the strangest visuals you're likely to see committed to celluloid - one that leaps directly to mind is "the gunfighter" - an armless man who carries around a legless man in a leather sling on his back. Real amputees were used in this and, in one memorable scene, they try to climb a ladder, with mixed results. Whether this is representative of some deep existential point Jodorowsky was trying to make, or he simply thought it would be funny to watch, we may never know. El Topo is full of this sort of thing and it certainly isn't an easy film to watch. However, as cult classics go, chuck out your Rocky Horror Picture Show DVD, toss The Blues Brothers into the bin, and seek out a real cult movie.

Track: El Topo - Main Title

The Black Hole

I have a confession to make - I've never watched Disney's The Black Hole. I decided to remedy this recently by, ahem, availing myself of a copy of the movie. I think I managed to get through about ten minutes of it before switching it off, mainly because IT IS AS DULL AS DITCHWATER. Seriously, it's quite astoundingly dull. Perhaps, as a child, I would have been captivated by it but, as an adult with a rapidly decreasing attention span, it failed to grab me. But the music, ah now that's another matter entirely. John Barry creates a stirring, orchestral score for the film that is a delight to listen to. Give this a go and see what you think.
John Barry fact: Foul-mouthed comedian and magic genius Jerry Sadowitz is a big fan of John Barry's work. See? I bring you pearls.

Track: The Black Hole - Main Title

The Wicker Man

What can I tell you about The Wicker Man that you don't know already? Strangely, I'd never seen this film until about ten years ago when a friend urged me to watch it. I sat down, saw a little sea-plane flying around, heard some strange sort of folk music and a bloke singing about corn, and was instantly unimpressed. However, within moments, the sea-plane had landed at Summerisle and the magic began. I don't think I've ever changed my opinion of a film quite so quickly. It's a wonderful movie that easily stands repeated viewings and, although this is an overused phrase, hasn't aged at all - there's something wonderfully otherworldly about the island that means you wouldn't be surprised if it still existed in that form in the present day. Simply wonderful.

Track: The Wicker Man - The Landlord's Daughter

Dawn Of The Dead (1978)

Forget about running zombies. They are an abomination. Romero's shambling, blank-eyed motherfuckers are much scarier. You see, it doesn't matter how fast you are, how many guns you've got, or how well-barricaded in you think you are, eventually your food will spoil, your bullets will run out, and the masses of perambulating corpses outside will pull your hidey-hole to pieces. Zombies have the advantage simply because of their sheer numbers, their stubborn unwillingness to die, and their hunger for warm flesh. Zombies represent death, and no matter how fast you run, you can't escape destiny.
Dario Argento and his band 'Goblin' famously created a lot of the tracks for this movie, along with a great deal of library music. I'm chucking a couple of tracks in here, although it was a real struggle to narrow it down to just two.

Track: Dawn Of The Dead - L'alba Dei Morti Viventi (Dawn Of The Living Dead)

Track: Dawn Of The Dead - Sympathy For The Dead

Q - The Winged Serpent

A fantastic little movie from the early 80's which actually has more of a 70's feel to it. The late David Carradine stars as a policeman investigating a series of grisly murders - heads bitten off, body parts raining down onto the New York sidewalk, the usual. Of course, it turns out that the beastie responsible is none other than the Aztec God Quetzlcoatl, half lizard, half bird. Obvious really.
This movie is a strange mix - it features some impressive special effects in regard to the blood and gore, including a very well-created live sacrifice in which a man's heart is cut out, but the actual monster itself is, well, rather on the rubbery side. A nice little film to watch with a couple of beers and the pizza of your choice.

Track: Q - Main Title

My Name Is Nobody

Here's a nice cheery number to lighten the mood.
Many people incorrectly believe that Sergio Leone directed this film. He didn't. The screenplay was based on an idea by Leone, but written by Fulvio Morsella and directed by Tonino Valerii. I have to make a confession here - I haven't actually watched it yet. I know, I know, I'm a bad person but, currently, this is retailing at about £15 and I don't want to watch it badly enough to pay that price. The only thing I do know about this movie is, it has another wonderful soundtrack from the incomparable Ennio Morricone. Here, for your listening pleasure, is the main title which you may recognise as it was used in the excellent BBC comedy Nighty Night. Enjoy.

Track: My Name Is Nobody - Main Title