January 11, 2013


An Instrument Comes Into Its Own (JIM FUSILLI, 1/01/13, WSJ)

With virtuosity and no small application of wit, the New York Theremin Society seeks to elevate the instrument to the status its members believe it deserves. At a show at Joe's Pub in mid-December, five thereminists performed a range of material--including ambient and techno music, classical compositions by Alexander Scriabin and Richard Wagner, and pop by the Beatles, Enya, and Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern. During the concert, the instrument's bizarre nature was often secondary to its beauty and versatility.

Over borscht at a restaurant on the Lower East Side a few days before the show, Dorit Chrysler and Rob Schwimmer, the society's drivers, spoke of the theremin with affection and bemusement.

"I thought it was the kookiest, most expressive thing," said Ms. Chrysler, age 40, remembering her initial exposure to the instrument. "The only thing comparable is the voice. But the theremin is an extension of the body."

Mr. Schwimmer, 58, was familiar with its sound, but he hadn't seen it played until the late 1980s, when a clip of Clara Rockmore (1911-1998), perhaps the instrument's greatest virtuoso, ran on television. "I remember trying to reconcile the physical motions with the sound. I really didn't know which hand was doing what."

A theremin player manipulates the electromagnetic fields around two antennae--one of which controls pitch, the other volume. The tiniest movement affects the sound, more often than not to a dissatisfying end. To create the sonic impression of a soaring spaceship or a laser beam is fairly simple. To play George Harrison's "Within You Without You," as Mr. Schwimmer did at Joe's Pub, isn't. Yet the theremin appeals to amateur musicians who think it's easy to play.

"Evidently, the dropout rate is phenomenal," Mr. Schwimmer said.

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Posted by at January 11, 2013 5:27 AM

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