Theremin in Maryland by shueh-li ong [May 19th 2001]

The purpose of my trip to Maryland was to meet with theremin enthusiast, maker and performer of many years, Arthur (Art) Harrison. A visit to the Clara (she “single-handedly” brought the theremin to fame) Rockmore exhibit at Maryland University, and Dr Bruce Wilson, Head of the Performing Arts Library and exhibit curator, made the trip complete.

When I was first introduced to Art’s theremins, I immediately noticed the difference in the appearance of his instruments compared with the theremin design with which I am more accustomed. Besides their aesthetic value, and the much smarter, utilitarian placement of power and audio jacks on the back panels of the instruments, Art has spent considerable effort developing theremins which use plates, instead of the usual monopole and loop.

Art has favored sine waves for his primary timbre. While the area of tone quality is an interesting and vital consideration for theremins, his emphasis has been in finding ways of improving some of the more technical aspects of theremins, e.g., temperature stability, signal-to-noise ratio, ease of calibration, and ergonomics. By the latter, I refer to the volume and pitch controls. The inversion of the volume parameters; closer for increased volume, and further for softer volume, in my opinion, made for more natural and expressive performance gestures, especially when applied to phrasing. When the range of volume control was reduced, staccato could be achieved by bouncing the finger off the plate, without causing a “glitch”.

I also discovered, much to my interest, that his pitch plates were placed horizontally instead of vertically. This eased the strain I would normally endure in my pitching wrist, which occurs when one’s hand is tilted toward the monopole in the traditional theremin, when compared to the relaxed palm-down position. I shall leave the more in-depth technical details to be read from “Art’s theremin Page”.

Amongst all of Art’s diverse prototypes, his Cigar Box theremin most demonstrated his sense of humour. I should mention humour also in his choice of “repertoire” which included Donna Summer’s Hotstuff(!!), Gershwin’s Summertime, a few Micky mouse tunes and old show tunes.

Here, I will list by name, a few of his theremin creations: The “633 theremin” with a switchable volume map for those who prefer the traditional volume response, the “144” and “145” theremins with an almost ethereal bassoon-like sound quality, his auto-calibrating VCO (voltage controlled oscillator) voiced theremins, and the “146” model with a pitch range of 12 octaves and a timbre control function. Not forgetting his Optical theremin, which needs to be played on axis. While some of these theremins are of the “synthetic” variety, in which the tone is generated by a 7-octave range VCO, others, such as the “144”, “145”, and “146” instruments are of the heterodyne variety.

Each one of Art’s theremins had its own characteristic sound which, to my own surprise, I had come to identify in the course of my visit. Though he repeatedly brought to my attention the high signal-to-noise ratios in many of his theremins (and there was), I was more intrigued with his multitude of efforts in designing such a variety of theremins, all which have their distinctive “voice”.

I found myself relating to each instrument as if they were individuals in their own right. The bassoon-like “144” was just as intriguing to play as another one of my favourites, the Harmonic theremin, in which six knobs permitted timbre manipulation using additive synthesis. The resulting sound emanating from a few pot adjustments were, to my ears, like angels singing in harmony. I was imprisoned in a room full of theremins, and wished I could take them all home with me. : – )

I appreciated also, Art’s progress in making calibration all the more effective. Improvements in this area are of great reassurance to the performer, where a change in temperature, or a long-term absence from the theremin (e.g. while waiting in the green room) could mean a shift in parameters. (Retuning a theremin does not bring about the same response from the audience, or other members of the band, as retuning a violin, especially in the middle of a piece where being able to “hear” the instrument clearly and loudly enough to tune is absolutely mandatory. (refer to Blurb from The Art of theremin in the next section)

I thoroughly enjoyed engaging in much rhetoric with Art. This was especially so when it came to the impalpable, such as the spirit of performance, general misconceptions and mischaracterizations of energy in performance and expression, the tendency for some observers to over-simplify the amount of work involved in executing electronic music performances, aesthetics, the concepts of stream of consciousness vs formulaic playing, and performance ergonomics.

the Clara Rockmore Exhibit by shueh-li ong [May 20th 2001]

Maryland University’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Ctr. had put together a Clara Rockmore exhibit which began its life in New York’s Steinway Hall, with the blessing of Steven M Martin (film footage), Clara (her personal theremin), Bob Moog and other contributors. This exhibit was brought back home to Maryland thereafter and was to end its month-long stay in the Library when we visited.

Ms. Rockmore’s sister, Nadia Reisenberg, was an accomplished pianist, and frequent accompanist to Ms. Rockmore throughout her theremin performance years. The University’s International Piano Archives produced a collection of Nadia Reisenberg’s recordings in the compilation, “An Album of Chamber Music”.

Dr. Bruce Wilson, Head of the Performing Arts Library, was very kind to take Arthur and me on a personal tour of the exhibit, beginning with a short documentary film made by Steven Martin. The film consisted of the only surviving footage from the Sherman family’s archives showing Clara playing violin as a young girl, and an excerpt from the “Camera Three” interview with Clara, her sister Nadia, and Robert Moog. Also included was footage of Clara’s 18th birthday party for which Leon Theremin had invented a device that spun a cake on a motorized platform and lit its electric candles when she approached it, as well as scenes from Mr. Martin’s more comprehensive documentary, “Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey”, in which Mr. Martin reunited Leon Theremin with his protege, Clara Rockmore, shortly before Mr. Theremin’s death in 1993. (Clara Rockmore first met Leon Theremin when she was 18.)

We witnessed a 1991 photograph of Ms. Rockmore’s pupil, Dalit Warsaw, being given a lesson by Clara, and other photographs taken by Steve Sherman, the son of Clara’s other sister, Anna Sherman, only surviving sister living in Manhattan. (Both of Clara’s sister’s married cousins by the name of Sherman.) It was also at the exhibit that we discovered that Ms. Warsaw was bequeathed Clara’s Theremin-made theremin. Watching video footage of Ms. Rockmore’s performance, I noticed the familiar animated use of her eyebrows for expression, typical of her performances.

I made note that, according to Dr. Wilson, Ms. Warsaw had her pitch wrist bandaged during the exhibition in New York. This led me to consider my own ailment in a similar area and the alternative design offered in some theremins, including Arthur’s.

A little Bio on Clara

Clara Rockmore (nee Reisenberg, Russian, husband Robert Rockmore, an American lawyer) was the youngest of 3 musically gifted daughters, who began her music life at the age of 4 playing violin. She was one with absolute pitch.

She had met Leon in NY while on an extensive tour and found his theremin to have enormous potential. According to records she had joint problems in her bowing arm and so the performance nature of the theremin had an added appeal. She worked with Leon on the refinement of the theremin as a sensitive instrument and thereafter become its main proponent. In fact her personal theremin was specifically developed with her aerial fingering in mind; rather then moving her hands to and from the antenna, she would change the shape of her hand to change the pitch. More on Clara can be found in abundance on the internet.