Playability

Posted: 2/11/2006 1:26:31 PM
cantelow

From: Colorado

Joined: 7/5/2005

So, what are the capabilities and also the weak points inherent in theremin playing, that a composer would want to know? I'll put down a few preliminary thoughts.

Capabilities that can be exploited, with associated caveats:
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-- Large range - from very low to very high notes. However, the very low and very high notes are somewhat difficult to control.

-- A variety of timbres are available. The timbre can't be changed very easily at all during a piece, but between movements, say, a change would be workable.

-- Of course, glissandi work very nicely. :)

-- Vibrato variations. The vibrato is under good conscious control, after the player is pretty experienced. Vibrato control is difficult for beginners (and for me!), but accomplished players can control it to many degrees at will.

-- Microtones. There is controversy on this point; some claim that microtones are out of the range of thereminists' ability, but I think they are available to thereminists who have undergone careful ear training for microtones. Playing on key in general requires a microtone-level sensitivity, whether the piece contains actual microtones or not.
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Difficult things for a thereminist to do:
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-- Leaps. Leaps to a note out of the blue are difficult, but if you have been there earlier in the melody it is much easier.

-- Unisons. Unison playing by more than one theremin is tricky, though the richness of the resulting sound is rewarding. The thereminist has to have very good access to a monitor of his/her playing as separate from the other theremin(s).

-- Fast runs. It takes concentration to play each note, and we can't muster it fast enough for each note in a run, whew.

-- Arpeggios. This is like a fast run with small leaps included, heh.

What have I missed? :)
Posted: 2/11/2006 3:34:32 PM
Charlie D

From: England

Joined: 2/28/2005

The theremin is really the only instrument that can rival the voice in expressive variation. Some of the best violinists get close to a vox-humana, but the theremin comes up trumps.

Vocal slides of a sixth or less sound lovely on the theremin if you diminuendo on the way, particularly if they're up into the nice vocally range. It just sends shivers down the audience's spine.

In my opinion three 'general' sorts of vibrato work well on the theremin, all of which I try (and sometimes succeed!) to use as the music dictates. The first is a shallow, slow vibrato, which gives the effect of an unbroken treble voice. The second is a thicker but still slow vibrato, which sounds more operatic and soprano-like (favoured by PP). The third is a very fast, medium depth but highly controlled vibrato, which gives the effect of a violin (Clara Rockmore seems to have used this technique).

Perhaps I'll post an mp3 with my attempts at playing these three different styles of vibrato - along with a few 'special effect' ones that the theremin does so well, like nervous vibrato, angry vibrato and calming vibrato.

I dislike the use of no vibrato at all, except for practicing. If you use no vibrato then there's no point in using a theremin - you might as well use a slide whistle, tannerin or keyboard - and then you'd be sure of being in tune.

I don't think that the theremin does ensembles at all well. To be honest I've never really 'got' the whole multitracking theremin thing - even when Peter Pringle does it, the effect is not really to my liking. I suppose it's opinion more than a technicality - but certainly closely-knit harmony is not something I feel the theremin can cope with. It's a bit like hearing the Tocatta and Fugue in D-minor played on a violin (which I've heard twice now). It's feasible - but no match for the 'real deal.'

In my opinion one should try to play to the strengths of the instrument. Recently I learned that it's best to consider firmly before playing in public (or releasing a recording) - "Why am I playing this on a theremin? What can the theremin bring to this performance?" and so on. I don't like the idea of playing some easy tune on the instrument just because 'I can.' That sort of thing dooms the theremin to forever imitate other instruments in a battle that it will inevitably lose. :(

Phew. What a long post. I bet it was totally nonsensical. Hopefully something there will ring true. . . :)
Posted: 2/11/2006 9:54:31 PM
cantelow

From: Colorado

Joined: 7/5/2005

Yes, it certainly is necessary to play to the strengths of the instrument, I agree heartily. It's interesting that not all the subtleties have been found yet, IMO. To me there is a sort of mysterious quality to theremin music. I think it's more subtle than the popular idea of "spookiness!"

Not every theremin piece needs to contain lots of glisses and cover a large pitch range. I'm sure there must be some types of simple melodies that shine best on the theremin as opposed to other melody instruments such as violin or flute or voice. Hard to say what those subtle differences are at this point- the field is so new.
Posted: 3/21/2006 2:41:07 PM
rupert

From: washingtondc metro area

Joined: 2/8/2006

high notes are very easy to control if the player places there hand on the instrument and uses the hand angle technique.

consider the variation of pitch as an asset rather than something to be eliminated for normal melodic playing in the conventional pitch ranges.

compose for the theremin rather than a difficult imitation of voice or violin.

find a theremin player who suits your artistic goals.

do you want noises, kareoke or artistic playing?

make your definition of artistic playing clear to the performer and yourself.
Posted: 4/15/2006 5:48:56 PM
cantelow

From: Colorado

Joined: 7/5/2005

There's a common general notion that the theremin voice really shines best when it is fussing around in the same register as the human voice.

I subscribed to this thought until one day I realized how much I enjoy listening to bird songs (ah, springtime!). I tried some noodling in the high birdsong range in a composition I'm in progress on, and I like the results.
Posted: 4/17/2006 9:50:10 AM
DiggyDog

From: Jax, FL

Joined: 2/14/2005

Just my 2 cents on the birdsong thing...

There is a piece my band plays where I turn the pitch up really high and run the theremin through an auto-wah type of effect and a long repeating delay.

This make some really nice looped bird sounds.

After a few seconds it sounds like several birds chirping and singing in time with the music for a very nice effect.
Posted: 4/17/2006 4:57:21 PM
omhoge

From: New York, NY

Joined: 2/13/2005

Good points Ann, thank you for sharing these.
Re: two things listed under
"Difficult things for a thereminist to do:"
I think pitch preview might help with leaps and unisons. It might help with Arpeggios also if they are not fast.

You could add any quick staccato repeated note or sequence which seem difficult enough just with the pitch, there's no time to apply the vibrato and volume nuance that make longer notes sound human and musical. Something I'll be working on for a long time.
Posted: 4/17/2006 11:06:38 PM
kkissinger

From: Kansas City, Mo.

Joined: 8/23/2005

Why is it that some pieces that contain jumps are easier to play than others? Is there some kind of magic involved, or are there some factors that make one jump easier than another?

There are two kinds of Theremin performers when it comes to jumps: 1) those that love to play 'em, and 2) those that say they don't love jumps and love to play 'em anyway. OK, admit it -- we all love to play them. If you haven't tried your hand at "Over the Rainbow" it is because you don't know the tune. If you know the tune and are reading this, you HAVE tried it! :)

The jump in "Over the Rainbow" is an octave jump. Nothing fancy there. "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" has an octave jump, too however is well-nigh impossible to play. What's the difference? What makes "Rainbow" so darned playable?

In the case of "Rainbow", the jump is easy because the lower note is held long enough for the performer to establish the pitch. And.. the upper note is also a long note. Ah, yes... even if the jump is a little off there is time to correct that top pitch. Furthermore, the ascending octave jump is followed by a descending step. This "rule" of voice leading: that a jump is best followed by a step in the opposite direction was well-known to 16th century composers. This wonderful little technique also works for Theremin music!

"Ballgame" opens with an octave jump just like "Rainbow" however there are some differences. Ballgame's top note is short -- no time to "milk it" and it jumps rather than steps down. This causes untold difficulty -- if you don't nail the top note of the jump then the rapid notes following are all "off" -- in the cracks -- with no long notes to allow any pitch correction!

Thus, to make a Theremin composition playable, the composer must include long-held notes as "anchors" to give the performer a chance to tune.

There are two factors to playing pitch on the Theremin: playing by ear and playing by muscle memory. Long notes can be played by ear, short notes by muscle memory because there isn't time to tune the notes by ear.

Music with lots of long notes can jump around everywhere because the performer has a chance to tune each note. As the note values become smaller and/or the tempo increases, the performer must rely more on muscle memory AND, if you subscribe to Murphy's Law and its correllaries, errors will always accumulate in the direction of most harm! The point here is long notes = ear, short notes = muscle.

So, how can we combine jumps AND fast passages and keep things relatively playable?

For starters, think about the hand position that results from a jump. Ascending jumps will normally result in the Thereminist being in 4th position (that is, in a position to hit notes below the target note) -- performers "clam" for the downward jumps, resulting in first position on the target note -- setting up ascending notes.

Thus, the easiest ascending jump is one that jumps to a relatively long note and then plays rapid notes below the target note (from a 2nd to a 4th). The descending jump is the same except that the rapid notes that follow should be upwards from the target note.

Jumps are very fun to play and fun for the audience to watch. The notes to which the jumps go also can serve as "pitch anchors" -- giving the Thereminist a chance to correct any little pitch discrepency and move on.

Hope you enjoyed this article. Time to stop writing -- I think I need a "fix" of "Over the Rainbow".

May you "jump" to new heights!

-- Kevin
Posted: 4/19/2006 2:09:16 PM
vonbuck

From: new haven ct.

Joined: 7/8/2005

All made easier with a pitch preview. I finally got around to modifying my Pro for actual pitch previewing, and it's a whole new world
Andy
Posted: 8/14/2006 2:07:23 PM
Etherdave

Joined: 2/21/2005

Playability of the theremin as it is pertinent to the composer should involve three things: melody, articulation, and timbre variance.

The composer must look at past compositions to find out what is the nature of the theremin, as a solo instrument and as an ensemble instrument. What is the purpose? Why should this or that part be played by a theremin? Is this an hommage to Hollywood sci-fi, an attempt at abstraction using a novel instrument, or an entirely new form of microtonalism or atonalism?

It doesn't matter where current performers are with their developing skills, nor does it matter where we are today with the technological state of the instrument; new skills will be developed, new configurations of theremin circuitry will be developed. There is a musical point to fast-moving passages, heavy articulation, or sudden jumps between notes of varying intervals, and if the point is to be made with a theremin then it must be written down for the thereminist to learn to play. Many compositions are branded as 'unplayable' or 'unperformable' only to be successfully managed once skills are fully up to the task.

Most serious models of theremin have some kind of timbre variance control, and since the theremin is an electronic instrument it should be capable of changing its tone as a form of expression. My own instrument uses a dial, which can be set between movements, or even between phrases as opportunity allows; any more than this, however, is impractical for me. A player whose instrument can be controlled by, say, a foot pedal, would have much greater opportunity to change the instrument's timbre; so also would a player who simply had more than one theremin on stage.

For me the key features of the Sound of the Theremin are microtones, portamento, the unique sonic characteristics of the simply-produced synthesizer-like voice, and finally the effortless nature of the instrument's electronically controlled volume. Any composition that can capitalize on these aspects of the instrument will surely showcase the abilities of both instrument and player.

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