'Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey'

'Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey'

In 1994, after finishing a show at Lounge Ax in Chicago, I was taken by a friend to another club to check out Pere Ubu. As striking an experience as a Pere Ubu show can be, I was captivated by a guy standing toward the back of the stage motioning his hands in the air while not holding a readily apparent instrument. He made the most amazing sounds I had ever heard. I asked my friend what on earth was he playing, and she said, "Oh, that's a theremin."

I was familiar with the name from Jimmy Page and the Beach Boys, but I had never seen or heard one in person. As cool as it sounds on albums, it's a whole different story live. I knew I had to have one. After a year of searching, I came across a company called Big Briar, run by Bob Moog, that sold a basic theremin kit called the Etherwave. One hundred and twenty-five dollars later, I was a proud owner.

Invented in 1919 by Russian physicist Lev Sergeevich Termen (Léon Thérémin) though not patented until 1928, the theremin is the only instrument that's played without being touched. With your hands acting as grounded plates, sound is created through their proximity to two antennas, one controlling pitch, the other volume. Essentially, it's like playing slide guitar on one very long string, without any frets or reference points. You tune it to your body, which is easier said than done. A theremin player is literally pulling a melody out of very thin and unforgiving air.

I won't bother with a brief history of the instrument, as it wouldn't do it justice. Instead, I direct the curious to the fascinating 1994 documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey. Used in countless science-fiction film scores, the theremin also appears on more recordings these days than it should. My suggestion is to get on YouTube and type in Pamelia Kurstin, who's worked with Austin's Pat Mastelotto. Locally, check out thereminist Yvonne Lambert in the Octopus Project, or track down the Austin Theremin Orchestra.

I've never known a particular instrument to inspire such curiosity and excitement. Vladimir Lenin became a student after hearing it, and then there's a certain promoter in Hoboken, N.J., that stuck around after a performance by my band, the Friends of Dean Martinez, to play mine, before skipping off with all the money from the door. Hopefully, he used some of it to buy a theremin of his own.

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