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”.