Lost in a Dense Fog

When I first learned to play the piano, it was a challenge to master the weight of the keys. Weighted keys allow the piano’s sound to be louder or softer depending on how hard you press them down. Since fingers vary in size and shape it takes practice before the index and ring fingers (for example) generate the same volume on the keyboard. In hindsight, if I’d chosen the theremin over the piano I could’ve developed the technique much faster because this instrument makes its music without weighted keys. In fact, the theremin makes music without any touch at all.

I should’ve posted about the theremin closer to Halloween because it produces one of the eeriest sounds you’ll ever hear.  Click the red preview button on this list of Theramin Sound Effects and tell me if you disagree. Doesn’t your mind conjure up a ghostly apparition floating in the darkness of a haunted house?  The theremin provides the perfect soundtrack for all things scary. New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg once described the theremin’s wail as “a cello lost in a dense fog, crying because it does not know how to get home.”  I like that (and it’s much classier than “pig squeal”).

How the theremin creates its unique sound involves too much science to keep your attention today (and more words than I want to type).  Suffice it to say, the instrument has two antennae; a looped one to control volume and an upright one to delineate pitch.  The player’s darting hand/finger movements – touching nothing but the air in between – create its spooky music. 

Now watch the following performance.  Seeing the theremin played is almost as jaw-dropping as listening to it.

I find the theremin to be a fish out of water next to traditional orchestra instruments, yet there are several other weirdos out there.  The bassoon features a tiny mouthpiece attached to a massive piece of black pipe and requires a deliberate overbite to create its nasal tones.  The glockenspiel (which gets points for a fancy name) is really nothing more than a metal xylophone.  The tam-tam is a giant gong, lucky to be struck more than once in a performance.  And the hand saw doubles as a musical instrument when you warp and release the blade (and sounds pretty darned close to the theremin).  But each of these outliers requires physical touch to make their sounds.  The theremin sings with mere jabs of the air.

[Author’s aside:  Every time I write theremin my brain wants to override with Theraflu, the over-the-counter cold and flu medicine (“Discover the Powerful Relief!”)  You don’t find many thera- words in the English language – therapy being the only other one I can come up with.  I’m happy to announce I need neither Theraflu nor therapy at the moment.]

The theremin was invented in the 1920s by Russian physicist Leon Theremin (whose life story involved a lot more than science).  RCA picked up the commercial production rights but the musical instrument never really developed a following.  Instead, its soprano voice showed up randomly in music and movies.  If you recall the Beach Boys’ hit, “Good Vibrations” you should also recall the theramin solo at the end of the song.  You’ll also hear its moan in the opening bars of Fleetwood Mac’s “Little Lies”.  But the theramin seems a more logical fit in the soundtracks of horror and science fiction movies like The Spiral Staircase, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing from Another World, and more recently, Monster House.

My favorite account of the theremin (and with this I close) is a collection of melodies recorded and blasted into outer space back in 2001.  The effort was an attempt to communicate with other worlds, including Gershwin’s Summertime and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.  The name of this collection? First Theremin Concert for Extraterrestrials.  Seriously?  We chose the theremin?  Wouldn’t these classics have sounded a whole lot smarter on the instruments they were originally written for?  No wonder the (more intelligent) races out there haven’t stopped by our little planet to say hello.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

20 thoughts on “Lost in a Dense Fog

  1. I’d never heard of the theremin, Dave, so read (and listened) to this with interest. Whoever blasted its music into space may have thought the eerie tones would be most pleasing to extraterrestrials–although how they’d know that is anyone’s guess!

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    1. I included the final video to counter the overall tone of my post, Nancy. That performance is actually quite beautiful! I’m with you – first time I’d heard of the instrument.

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  2. I admit I’ve never heard of it, but then had to go back and listen to the end of good vibrations…and yea….it’s there….a sound best left to the extra-terrestrials I think!

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    1. I always thought the Good Vibrations sound was created on a synthesizer (like most music of this kind) but it’s one of the more famous uses of the theremin. I’ll never listen to that song the same way again!

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    1. Yes, somehow the Bumblebee video hid the pianist but the intent was to show off the theremin. I included the last video because I thought it was a much classier performance. Actually quite beautiful, akin to a woman’s soprano voice.

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  3. I learned something new today Dave. I had not heard of a theremin. Yes the first video is rather haunting, but her arm waving and the red background and yellow bee glow also make it seem spooky as well as the music. The second piece is very beautiful and peaceful. Funny you mention typing “ther” and your brain and fingers wanting to put the letter “a” next. When I worked at the ad agency, our main client was Chrysler and for years, I could not type the words “Christmas” or “Christian” or “Christopher” without my fingers being on auto-pilot and typing “Chrysler” automatically as I had to type that word so often. This was long before the IBM Wheelwriter typewriter with storage to replay/correct, or the concept of word processing entered my world. So, back then, if the errant word could not be erased neatly, it meant retyping the page over from scratch.

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    1. Holy cow, you sure know how to bring the memories, Linda. The IBM Wheelwriter! That was the coolest typewriter ever when it debuted. I was fascinated how the wheel could turn so fast as to keep up with my typing. Younger generations will never appreciate the technical marvels we grew up with. Re: JP’s blog, you owned a PACER? I was in LOVE with that car, including the bright colors (I wanted orange). In hindsight, I have no idea what I was thinking but at the time it was what I wanted. Much better looking than the Gremlin 🙂

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      1. I agree about the IBM Wheelwriter Dave. Back before computers, we thought it was great that we could store signature blocks, addresses and the like and save a little bit of typing time. That print wheel spun around like crazy while typing, but what a great machine!

        I did own a Pacer from the time I got rid of my VW Super Beetle which was a lemon and stalled incessantly or wouldn’t start and got the Pacer in 1977. I didn’t know they came in orange. Mine was a light beige with cream-colored cloth seats with a Southwestern motif on the seats. I had to leave the car outside all the time and the sun coming thru the big Pacer windows rotted the cloth seats, so I wrote American Motors and said I liked the seats, but I didn’t feel they should have rotted. They agreed and gave me new seat coverings – they removed all the seat and replaced the coverings, not just a seat cover which was what I was going to do. I was a fun-shaped car, the “fishbowl” and speaking of fish, it fishtailed like crazy in Winter. I had it for 11 years until I got my Regal in 1988.

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      2. Wikipedia’s article on the Pacer described it as “the 1970’s answer to George Jetson’s mode of transportation”. That’s LOL, because the Jetson cars are the first thing I think of when I see the Pacer. Not sure the car ever came in orange – maybe I just wanted it to 😉

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      3. I didn’t know of that definition Dave, but I like it! Yes, the Pacer was short and squat and had plenty of room in that hatchback. I had to have two new gas tanks as it rode low on the ground and I redid all the landscaping in the backyard in 1985 and hauled all my own landscape materials (it was an ambitious project for much younger legs but Lowes and Home Depot were not in the picture yet). Then my Pacer had to have new springs from hauling 2 X 4s and all the mulch and plants.

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    1. Well, we just exchanged instruments neither of us knew about. The Novachord looks like a seriously souped-up piano. Built in the 1930s and 1940s? Wow. I feel old 🙂

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