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Here and Theremin

Read Metro's take on composer Dennis James, who has used the Theramin in film scores.

For a guy and an instrument not too many people know of, there sure is a lot of Theremin on the Web:

The Theremin Home Page: Biography, lists of recordings, bands currently using theremins, and lots of links.

The Theremin: Contains Moog's technical explanation of theremin and lists theremins for sale

An Electric Odessey: Orion Pictures' web page about the Theremin movie

Thermin Enthusiasts Club International: Just the place for all you closet Theremanics

The Odd Music Page: Has a sound sample from The Art of the Theremin with Clara Rockmore

    Ultimately, it's the story of the professor's famous creation itself: the Theremin, the first amplified instrument, the first synthesizer, the Bela Lugosi of instruments, a vessel made for the classics but fated to play in horror films forever after. Interviewee Robert Moog, inventor of the Moog Synthesizer, hails Theremin's accomplishment as "the biggest, fattest corner" to the structure of electronic music.

    Theremin, born in 1896, studied engineering and built the Theremin in 1920 while attempting to construct an improved radio. The Theremin is a box full of coils and vacuum tubes, with two antennae--one vertical rod and one horizontal loop--extending from its top and side.

    The Thereminist never actually touches the instrument; it is played by using the hands to manipulate the magnetic field the machine creates. Stroking the field next to the vertical antenna produces a bloodcurdling tremolo; the proximity of the hands to the horizontal antenna determines the volume. In--or more correctly, next to--the hands of a virtuoso, the sound of the Theremin can be sweet, sad or devastatingly eerie.

    The instrument shows its range everywhere, from the unforgettable E/E/D/C#/D riff in the Beach Boy's "Good Vibrations" to the throbbing growls in the orgasm bridge in Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." Still, the Theremin's most frequent use--to the disapproval of the World's Greatest Thereminist, Clara Rockmore, who complains, "always, the spooky"--is as background music for the unreal or the terrifying in movies.

    In a rousing montage, Martin excerpts what should be called the "Theremin sequences" from The Day the Earth Stood Still, Spellbound and The Lost Weekend: Patricia Neal warding off the robot Klaatu with a half-choked phrase of alien gibberish; Gregory Peck experiencing high anxiety at the sight of the lines in Ingrid Bergman's herringbone robe; Ray Milland sucked into the vortex of a highball glass--all are enhanced by the Theremin. If, as movie composers Miklos Rozsa and Bernard Herrmann and a few thousand rabid fans of soundtracks know, music represents at least half of the power of a movie, the Theremin sometimes deserves a credit above the title.

    Theremin himself had a bit of a sinister side. When an associate died an untimely death, as one of Theremin's living co-workers, Henry Solomonoff, remembers it, the professor remarked that grieving was a waste of time and that what really ought to be done was to construct a machine to bring the dead man back. (You can practically hear the Theremin wailing in the background as its creator suggested playing God.)

    Theremin intended his invention to be a classical instrument, not a novelty, and Martin's account of Theremin's life begins in his period of success. At his midtown Manhattan studio in the 1920s and '30s, the professor worked with a Theremin ballet troupe (eventually marrying one of its members). He even started an ensemble that played Carnegie Hall.

    Solomonoff remembers Theremin hushing his assistants' fears that an orchestra of Theremins might be out of sync or out of tune. "You are men, and I know that it will work," Theremin said imperiously, according to Solomonoff, who adds, chuckling, "I guess we were women that day."

    Theremin was a very good-looking man in his youth, and his steely gaze fell on his pupil Clara Rockmore, who is still alive to tell of her days as the fresh-faced star musician in Theremin's tutelage. She's played the instrument for both Leopold Stokowski and Tim Burton (soloing on the Ed Wood soundtrack). In footage of her farewell concert in 1989, Rockmore is a dignified and sad old lady.

    If you read between the lines of Theremin--and you are led to that well-known place by director Martin--this sadness must have something to do with her own relationship with the handsome professor. We see Theremin, one of those men who look as natural in a tux and tails as Fred Astaire, in home-movie scenes at Clara's birthday party sometime during the 1920s. He's rigged up her birthday cake to twirl on an electronic stand, which is triggered by her presence. Her delight in the toy is tangible.

    When Theremin returns to visit her some 70 years later, Rockmore is very correct and polite as she shows her apartment to the strange old man in his dotage. The breach in their relationship is unexplained; we can only guess what came between them.

    The story of how they were separated is even stranger. Theremin was spirited off of 54th Street by Soviet secret agents and taken to the U.S.S.R., where he disappeared beyond even the reach of rumor. It turns out that Theremin spent the majority of his life abroad as an employee of the KGB.

    By the narrowest coincidence, Rockmore found Theremin after the fall of Communism decades later, unaccountably still alive in his 90s. On camera, the professor himself tells, in the most elliptical fashion imaginable, how he survived in the Soviet Union for six decades. In a coda, his niece completes the sad story (Theremin died in 1993), as we see Theremin visiting a much-transformed New York.

    The instrument that Clara Rockwell refers to as "my darling little Theremin" fascinated Robert Moog, who had tried to market his own version of the device. Moog developed the synthesizer from the Theremin's principles; and the synthesizer changed everything about music but the musicians.

    The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, less edited into coherence than he was in the recent documentary I Just Wasn't Made for These Times, tries as best he can to explain his own use of the Theremin in "Good Vibrations." A friend of a friend owned a Theremin, Wilson explains. Wilson was terrified by it but decided to add it to what he considered the scary cellos in the mix of "Good Vibrations." When Wilson vocally imitates the whine of the Theremin, you can see that he might have spotted something in the music's quality reflected inside his own troubled life.

    Even if the Theremin was an invention without precedent, it was designed to play standard modes of western music. Like the musical saw, the Theremin is more of a novelty now than it was in the 1920s. The shrillness of both recreates the sound of the high-pitched stringed instruments you can hear in Central and East Europe. The Theremin is a musical instrument with a tragic tale to tell; it possesses a sad soul, a Russian soul.

    The keening of the Theremin is as evocative against a screen full of flying saucers as it is against the story of a Russian émigré vanished, stolen back to near slavery and then rediscovered. In eliciting this story in the music, Steven M. Martin deserves attention not only as a director but as a composer of a romantic minor-key symphony about genius crushed and, in a modest way, enduring.


    Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey (Unrated; 85 min.), a documentary by Steven M. Martin, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the Nov. 2-Nov. 8, 1995 issue of Metro

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