Arranging for Theremin

Posted: 12/20/2005 7:09:35 PM

From: Colorado

Joined: 7/5/2005

I think of Arranging as Composing's little brother. The monthly contest endeavors have brought home to me how important arranging is. It takes creativity to imagine how to put together an attractive frame for a theremin song or piece. (Kudos on the arranging jobs done by the winners of this month's "What Child is This" entry!) At the Etherfest 2005 I was struck by how the theremin can actually work well with accoustic instruments, something I hadn't thought of before. I'm curious what others think about possible arranging techniques and styles.

Posted: 12/20/2005 10:57:53 PM

From: Kansas City, Mo.

Joined: 8/23/2005

This is a great topic!

Thank you for the compliment on "What Child is this".

Well, a few thoughts come to mind about arranging for Theremin.

~~ melodic writing suits the Theremin well ~~

The Theremin is a melodic instrument.

A Theremin creates harmony only through the use of multi-track recording, echo loops, pitch-shifters, or multiple Theremins.

To play a rhythm part is outside of the Theremin's primary language, too. While Pamelia Kurstin can make the room dance with her amazing walking bass technique, you probably don't want to assume that the Thereminist that will play your arrangement is similarly gifted. (i.e., the Thereminist you arrange for may be YOU! Of course, one can decide to push the envelope.)

~~ what kind of melodies ~~

1) The theremin can play the theme -- that is the actual notes of the song.

2) The theremin can play a descant while another instrument or Theremin plays the theme. The best descants are rhythmically independent from the theme. That is, when the theme has a long note or a rest, the descant plays lots of notes... when the theme is moving, the descant holds a note or doesn't play at all. (the descant to 'Angels We Have Heard on High' is an excellent example).

3) The theremin can play a variation on the Theme. A good example is Peter Pringle's remarkable arrangement of "Away in a Manger" wherein he adds arpeggios and grace notes to the melody when he plays the second verse.

Other uses are possible however I personally have utilized the above methods.

~~ difficult but doable ~~

1) close harmony / block chords are difficult because of the tuning. You might confuse another player's (track's) note with yours and go off into "cloud cukoo land" trying to correct it. I have experimented with such arrangements however have created nothing that I'd want anyone to hear. I have not tried this with a pitch preview -- a pitch preview might help to pick out my Theremin note from the others.

2) Unison notes on multiple theremin tracks... very difficult because if they are out of tune, it is really really noticeable. And while playing, it is hard to tell your note from the other. If the other note is sharp, and you hit your note flat, you may "hear" the sharp note, and correct downward, making your flat note even flatter. If you MUST have a unison, have one player hit the note first, then the second one. If they both hit the same note at once... beware! I imagine this could get dicey with two Thereminists at once -- each mistakenly correcting the other's note! (kind of like the practical joke when you switch the controls on someone's two-sided electric blanket...)

3) Wide spacing works best! If the two Theremin tracks are widely spaced, then the difficulty of discerning your note goes away. A melody with a descant playing an octave or two higher is pretty easy to bring off.

~~ arranging for an audience ~~

Usually when I start, my first thought is the style of the arrangement. Will I do something traditional or wildly contemporary? Will I use sound effects. Will the rhythm be steady or rubato? The other question is what do I want to give to the listeners? Do I want to amuse/entertain? Do I want to pour my heart out? Do I want to deliver some kind of technical tour-de-force? Am I doing an "etude" -- a work to challenge myself somehow? How do I deliver a performance that appeals to mind, body, and heart?

I know this is all philosophical however arranging is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. The 1% inspiration is essential, just like the pinch of salt is necessary in many recipes. Just gotta have it or there is no flavor. If you are reading this you already know that anything worth doing requires the "grunt work". Fortunately, arranging music is a fulfilling way to break a sweat! :)

The good news in all this is that we can safely assume that the audien
Posted: 12/23/2005 9:02:48 PM

From: Colorado

Joined: 7/5/2005

I'm just getting used to forum-type formatted discussions. Interesting- subtopics would be nice, huh? Piques the interest of the day-job programmer in me. I'll try taking one topic per post...

On melodic writing and the theremin, yeah, sure seems so, eh? That way it's like voice, flute, trumpet, or violin. It would probably be interesting to take a short-short theremin sample and try to build a loop beat on that. I'd like to try that someday when I get the knowhow.
Posted: 12/23/2005 9:49:18 PM

From: Colorado

Joined: 7/5/2005

BTW, thanks for all the thoughts, Kevin! There's sure lots in there to think about.

On the Difficult but Doable category, about block chords and theremin on theremin harmony, when it works it works quite nicely, IMO. The continuity of the sound works for it, giving it an arresting quality. Let's see, what else is so continuous? ...All that comes to mind for me is an organ and a hurdy-gurdy, heh, and things played with circular breathing such as a didgeridoo. I think a snare drum or fast-picked mandolin would also qualify. Oh, also a choir.

It's worth the effort to try to play with another theremin, either another person or via self-recording. I find that one gets somewhere with practice- takes some effort to get used to, but then has capacity to work well.

Playing with Victoria Lundy one day, we discovered that it's problematic to have 2 theremins coming out of the same speaker! Moving the voices to different speakers in different locations in the room made a big difference.

I've worked at playing a couple of rounds with myself via recording, doing one voice at a time on a separate track. The first round I tried, I put my E-Pro on 3 different timbre settings for the 3 different voices of it. But after I had done that, I felt I could graduate to the same setting for all voices, and was delighted to find it worked. --Though in each case I did turn the volume of the competing tracks down, and wailed away on the voice in progress. The practice of the first round got me more prepared for a subsequent one- you get used to it. It's really a fun type of project to do, and I like how the result sounds.

In a round, it's pretty inevitable to have a fair number of unisons, and it's good practice to work on those and get used to listening to one's own voice.

Posted: 12/24/2005 2:16:44 AM

From: Kansas City, Mo.

Joined: 8/23/2005

Yes, I think the key to playing multiple Theremins is the ability to hear the part you are playing, whether it is brought up in the monitor mix or via speaker proximity, etc.

The situation you mentioned: both theremins coming out of the same speaker is a toughy, to be sure.

btw -- by day I, too, am a programmer. :)
Posted: 12/24/2005 10:44:49 AM

From: Hillsborough, NC (USA)

Joined: 2/13/2005

Ann, did you have a problem discerning which theremin was which, or were you experiencing cross-talk?

Heh... I'm also a programmer slash tester ( by day. What I wouldn't give though to some day make a decent living with the theremin.
Posted: 12/24/2005 9:50:53 PM

From: Colorado

Joined: 7/5/2005

It's programmers all round. :)

The problem I was talking about was discerning which theremin was which, ...or where. The two theremins had different sounds, but it was still tough to hear them separately when coming from the same place.

Funny you should mention it, we did also experience the crosstalk- when we were trying to play an E-Pro and a Standard E-wave together. E-Pro and Wavefront did much better together, though there were still occasional mutterings.
Posted: 9/6/2009 4:03:24 PM

From: Canadia

Joined: 9/5/2009

hi! iam looknig for for tab's for Heavy Metal songs on theremin do you know who has them im not fonding them in Toronto? Maybe someone else in Canada or in us?
Posted: 11/24/2010 9:52:48 PM
Thomas Grillo

From: Jackson Mississippi

Joined: 8/13/2006


Looking for someone to set to written music a work which was produced by Dan Wilson on Hammond Novachord, and my self on theremin.

We don't want stock chord structures used. The arranger must be able to capture exactly what's heard in the performance. We own the copyrights to the piece which started out as improvisations on both our parts.

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