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.


E F RICE said...

Oh that is what that spooky noise is called!Certainly agree with you on the quality of the Day the Earth Stood Still and Ed Wood films Dan.

Despite the use of synthesisers I am prepared to let the Portishead track go ! Fine band and I really enjoyed listening to that track again.

Really interesting post, will drop by again.

Dan said...

E F Rice: Glad you liked the post. The inclusion of the Portishead track has caused a couple of raised eyebrows both here and on Twitter it seems. As you state though, it is worth listening to again. Even though it's not a theremin, I think it's a respectful nod.

Thanks for the comment, and I look forward to your continued custom. :o)

Piley said...

Wot no 'Good Vibrations'??!

TDTESS and Ed Wood both have a touch of the original Star Trek theme about them in places!!

Have always had a soft spot for these mad little instruments. Nearly bought one once.. do you remember when they used to sell them in Maplins for about a one'er?? I think it was in 'kit' form tho, which is what put me off... i'm shit enough at putting a bleedin Ikea chair together, there is no way i'd trust myself with 100 quids worth of electrical bits n bobs!

When Soft Cell reformed in the early 2000's Marc Almond was playing one for a couple of their new tracks.... the 'hand actions' are fab aint they??!! Most people end up like they are doing a 'w@nker' sign! (the 'freeze frame' on the youtube clip is classic!)

Top toons my good man!


Dan said...

I've been tempted to buy one of the DIY theremin kits but, from what I can tell, the quality leaves a lot to be desired. Rather than an ethereal, haunting sound, you get something more akin to an electronic screech.

Of course, electronic screeches are equally valid and have their own place in electronic music, but I like the traditional sound.

Beautiful instruments, so they are.