I have always been a fan of the Theremin, even before I knew what to call it. As a kid, I loved its use in science fiction movies from the fifties and sixties and as an adult I came to appreciate its expressive nature.
Today, I came across an article in the Guardian; it’s a regular feature in which celebrities give and write about a playlist of their favorite songs. In the most recent installment, Erasure’s Andy Bell describes his favorite music. In his description of, “The Swan,” by Clara Rockmore, he writes:
I received this track on a compilation someone sent to me. When I heard it I thought it was the most beautiful thing, the sound she creates from the theremin is the closest you can get to a human voice.
Inspired by Andy Bell’s description, I searched YouTube for examples of Clara Rockmore and her Theremin and I found this:
Something about Clara Rockmore’s performance, despite poor audio and the grainy image conveys everything that I love about this instrument. It’s an instrument that is characterized by contradictions.
It, for example, is the instrument that is most like a human voice. Yet, its sound is derived from a waveform that is a cross between a sawtooth wave and a sin wave*. As such, it can be described and visualized mechanically and consistently.
Space Jake, from Thumbuki has posted an image here of a typical Theremin wavefore. You can compare the image of a Theremin waveform to that of the human voice here. Unlike the very regular wavefore of the Theremin, the human voice is made up of many different and layered waveforms.
There is also, because it is so expressive–because of it’s dynamic range, natural glissando and vibrato and tremolo (rapid changes in pitch and amplitude respectively)–a kind of intimacy with the Theremin that I would argue does not exist in most other instruments. For example, when I think of a piano, I don’t think of it as being an intimate instrument.
There’s something about the sound of a piano that conveys it’s mass, even when played delicately and quietly. It’s hard to imagine the sound coming from something organic. Perhaps this is because the piano is a polyphonic instrument. For whatever reason, a piano (as much as I love it’s sound) cannot convey the kind of intimacy that is natural to the Theremin.
Additionally, the Theremin is an instrument that is typically played without touching it. Watching someone play a Theremin is like watching someone sculpt in invisible clay. They hold and shape and contour and form the sound from nothing. There gestures are deliberate, often gentle and sometimes violent. Their hands flutter like leaves in the wind, but with distinct intent. It’s a marvel to watch really.
About a month ago, I attended a Boutiki gallery show that hosted the artwork and music of Andy Ristaino. Andy Ristaino plays the Theremin. His technique is one that screams and cries and sometimes sings, just as we do. It’s the fact that I can write that sentence, that makes the Theremin so powerful.
For more about Clara Rockmore and another sample of her music, visit: The Nadia Reisenberg and Clara Rockmore Foundation website.
* Similar to the waveform produced by a cello, which, too, is often said to sound like a human voice.