Aerial Fingering Technique

Posted: 1/2/2007 8:31:35 AM
Charlie D

From: England

Joined: 2/28/2005

Yikes. Sorry if it sounded like I was trying to knock you down or something.

I've studied works of Stockhausen, Berlioz, Shoenburg and Webern as part of my A2 syllabus. It seems to me however that fairly often the avant-garde neglects structure, tonality, development or harmony in such a way that makes it difficult to appreciate - it can be done well, but it needs one of those things mentioned before, otherwise I don't think it can be called music. A keyboard may be great fun to bash, but without some sense of appreciable structure and development - nobody's going to rush out and buy a CD of it.

This on the other hand, demonstrates little melody or harmony, but since it has structure and development, i think its very enjoyable:

Even serialist compositions, rooted in mathematics and with structures more rigorous than that of the Bachian fugue, have never appealed to a wide audience. Maybe eventually the general public will find tritones consonant (it took 'till the 1300s for European to find 3rds consonant!), but the likelihood is that serialism, the use of largely arbitrarily rules to generate a piece of music, or random key bashing will not allow for this.

I agree that we need to work to move on the harmonic and melodic zeitgeist. I don't want to force anyone to write Mozartian music ad infinitum. I simply feel that the most succesful attempts to reach 'musical' atonality have been via further construction upon the thousand years of musical evolution that have come before, rather than chucking almost all the rules out the window and trying to devise a whole new system of musical theory. In my opinion Shostakovitch and Wagner are two musicians for whom these attempts proved brilliantly succesful.

Call me a spoilsport, but I don't think art needs to be fun. I think that art should demonstrate the technical ability of the artist (and in music's case the performer), express emotions, ideas or feelings and demonstrate harmony and beauty. Above all it needs to be enjoyable in some way - even if it's through the unusual enjoyment of being scared or disconcerted (as in a horror film or something). I'm not sure you can't hope to push the boundaries unless the stuff you're using exhibits some of these traits.

I think Lydia Kavina has had the most success in pushing the theremin into more esoteric composition. I love (some) of the recordings she's made of modern compositions.

Don't get me wrong - I loved Pamelia's set. I didn't like the guitar guy's one, but the very first keyboardist had some nice ideas. My only complaint was that his piece lasted slightly too long - I reckon it would have been better if either it had been shorter, or been slightly more varied.
Posted: 1/2/2007 9:16:57 AM

From: Bristol, United Kingdom

Joined: 12/30/2006

Thankyou sir, for that keyboardist was none other than I. That was my "look, I own a Korg MS-20" set. I'm quite a fan of Jez (the guitar guy) and I believe he's doing a bit to help out with Hands Off 2007 (and I'm definitely getting him back to Bristol over the next few months)... so you haven't heard the last of him! IME is a bit of a weird one because it isn't strictly Jez, it's called the Intuitive Music Ensemble and basically incorporates any number of musicians that [i]might[/i] work to make music together... intuitively. It's a similar premise to what I might do, or what I did do when I was doing the synth-based stuff (the pull of the Theremin got too great in the end)... I'd wait until the day of the gig, come up with an idea for a piece, turn up and make it happen. Sometimes it came out great, sometimes awful. Sometimes it went on too long, but it was always fun, and principally in music fun is what I believe in more than anything else.

About mass appeal... it was Chris Rock who said "basically whatever was playing around the time you started f***ing, you will love that music forever". I think he's right there. Ultimately, people can convince themselves to like anything. It's a case of right place, right time. You don't need to convince crowds of people of anything, you just need to be doing what you want to do. I love making art and music, I might not ever make a penny off it, but I could do it until I die and put up with my 9-5 job just fine, as long as I have that in my life.

I also believe that good music can be made by idiots. It can be made by the confused and uneducated to that same degree of relevance as the greatest classical composer... that's just something I believe, and I've seen some great evidence to back that up. The key is to go out and find it, Bristol's experimental music scene for instance is amazing, you need to check it out.

By "fun", by the way, I mean engrossing, invigorating, assuring, efficacious - in any creative medium, someone's brain should be switching on... except when it's switching off. The most important thing is to love what you do, even if nobody else does... I guess it's sort of summed up here:

[i]“Our second ever live show was even more extreme. I cut my leg with a circular saw. When I jumped from this big drill press thing that I was up on, down onto a desk, the power saw hit something hard and bounced back into my thigh, about two inches in. Since it was a vertical cut, all the muscles were still connected. If I had cut myself sideways, the show would have stopped right there. I knew I had cut myself, but I was so excited I didn’t feel any pain. I surprised myself that time! Blood spurted way out. Even though there was a lot of blood, I kept running around for about 15 minutes. It was some kind of extreme emotional state. I really thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to die’ without feeling anything in particular one way or the other. Mind of ashes”[/i] – Yamatsuka Eye

Whoop, yeah - I forgot to mention: [b]Aerial Fingering[/b]. See, this thread is totally still on topic.
Posted: 1/2/2007 1:11:18 PM

From: Kansas City, Mo.

Joined: 8/23/2005

[i]Even though there was a lot of blood, I kept running around for about 15 minutes. It was some kind of extreme emotional state. I really thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to die’"[/i]

Wow! And to think, I was afraid that this thread would go off topic.

Posted: 3/27/2007 12:19:21 PM

From: Kansas City, Mo.

Joined: 8/23/2005


My latest compositions utilize live looping (I will premiere these works at the electro-music festival in June) and to use a laptop as a real-time processor forced me to consider the effects of latency on Theremin playing. This post is written to share some of my findings on the topic and hopefully you will find some of the information useful in your own music-making.

[b]Hand/ear coordination[/b]

One of the skills that a thereminist develops is hand/ear coordination. One listens to the sound and corrects to the target pitch. Worded another way, one moves one’s hand while listening to the pitch and stops on the target pitch.

Notice that I didn’t write “while listening to the theremin” because, as we all know, the theremin merely produces an electronic signal which in turn is processed, amplified, and sent to a speaker. To say that one plays the theremin while listening to the sound from a speaker best describes this relationship.

Thus, hand/ear coordination follows a cycle: hand -> theremin -> processing/amplification -> speaker -> ear -> hand. To reduce the latency (time-gap) from hand to ear is particularly important when playing the theremin.

[b]Latency sources[/b]

There are three sources of latency: 1) the speed of light, 2) processing time (system latency), 3) the speed of sound (acoustical latency).

The speed of light is a universal speed limit – nothing can exceed the speed of light. Fortunately, the effects of this are almost immeasurable. A so-called “zero latency” system is NOT absolute zero – however, for a discussion of theremin playing, we need not consider this speed limit.

The speed of sound is another speed limit, however, unlike the speed of light, the speed of sound is dependent upon the medium (the matter through which the sound waves traverse). For example, sound travels faster at low altitude (higher air pressure) than high. Sound travels faster through solids than through gas. A rough rule of thumb is that for sound to move through the air takes 1 millisecond (1ms) per foot. 1ms = 1/1000 of a second. I will call the speed of sound “acoustical latency”.

Processing time is another source of latency. This is most apparent with digital recording systems wherein the electrical signal from the theremin is converted to digital data that is, in turn, processed in a computer system. Once converted to digital data, the speed that it can be processed is subject to the speed of the computer system. The a/d and d/a converters are subject to their own delays. Delays under 10ms are excellent although computers may require more time to process – processing latencies can easily reach 30ms. I will refer to this as “system latency”.

“Milliseconds!?” you may ask. “Are we splitting hairs?” Well, to an extent, “yes” however to play the theremin precisely requires a bit of hair-splitting.

One approach to the computer system’s latency is to use zero-latency monitoring – that is, to monitor the theremin’s signal directly from a preamp without placing a computer in the path. This is an ideal solution most of the time. However, this can become an issue if you are using the computer to generate effects, particularly loops that require a high level of rhythmic precision.

Besides digital processing, the speed limit of the sound waves is a important source of latency. If the theremin’s monitor is 10 feet from one’s ear, then it will take 10ms for the sound waves to travel from the speaker to the thereminist.

[b]A millisecond here and a millisecond there adds up[/b]

The latency experienced by the thereminist, then, is the sum of system latency and acoustical latency.

Since my equipment allows me to set different delay (latency) times, I have experimented and found that latencies >10ms are enough to introduce “slop” into rhythmic playing and >20ms impact pitch precision. Above 30m
Posted: 5/14/2007 3:59:51 PM

From: Kansas City, Mo.

Joined: 8/23/2005

One of the most effective ways to "wow" an audience when demonstrating the Theremin is to do the breathing demonstration from Pamelia Kurstin's Epro DVD.

I find that to do this demo, I have to take an unrealistic, exaggerated breath. Audiences love this demo. Does this demo translate to any practical issues for a thereminist?

The theremin's antennas are sensitive to changes in electrical capacitance in the vicinity of the antennas. A thereminist's body has capacitance and (barring other objects in the control zone), the pitch corresponds to the shortest distance from the rod to some part of the performer's torso. That is, if one points one's elbow towards the rod then the distance from one's elbow to the rod determines pitch. (Ninki V gets swoops by swinging her long hair past the rod!)

In "normal" playing, when the hand is nominally eight to twenty inches from the rod and, say 12" from one's torso, one would have to take exaggerated breaths to produce any noticeable pitch change. Any change in pitch would be due to a change in the distance between one's fingers/knuckles and the rod. Thus, in the "normal" range of playing, one can just play and avoid gasping or otherwise exaggerated breathing.

Similarly, to hold your breath introduces stress and, ironically, makes it harder to stand still!

Since the amount of air in one's lungs has a negligable (if any) impact on capacitance, the issue with breathing is that exaggerated breathing can introduce extraneous motion.

In extreme cases, when playing very close to the rod, extraneous motion from normal breathing can be a factor.

For example, the Epro exhibits such fine linearity that one can hold notes only 1" from the rod. However, to hold such a note along with a controlled vibrato is difficult because such a note is on the edge of the Epro's controllable note spacing.

The high "d" of "Meteor Mallets" is such a note -- to hold it requires me to do a slow and controlled inhalation. This is a temporary posture that allows me to hold the note. The issue is that to breath in and out when so close to the rod can upset the distance to the rod. The note is followed by a few measures rest so I can catch my breath and composure.

[i](the high 'd' is the climactic note of the work -- I purposely wrote it because the effort to play it enhances to the drama of the note.)[/i]

In one of my latest works (to be premiered at the electro-music festival on June 1) I explore the bass end of the theremin's range (a live-looping work entitled "Three-Legged Race"). Near the end, I sustain a Low D (comparable to the lowest D on a piano keyboard). In this case, my hand is on my torso and any [i]excessive[/i] breathing effects the pitch. I must control my stance/position to hold pitch because my hand is not a factor in that mode. (incidentally, this is an easy note on the low register of the Epro -- I have to play it from the middle register setting because, in other sections of the work I have to hit some high notes.)

So, how important is breathing to a thereminist? My experience is that normal breathing works fine for playing the theremin.

So, we can "wow" our audiences with the "you can change the pitch by breathing" demo. And, in the meantime, we can breath easy.

Not a bad deal. :)

[i]-- Kevin[/i]
Posted: 5/17/2007 9:11:30 AM

From: New York, NY

Joined: 2/13/2005

For me these days, breath and the soles of my feet are inexorably intertwined.
As Kevin and Kip and others have commented, we do not so much remain perfectly motionless,
rather we maintain an equilibrium or a poise at the core of our stance at the theremin and from that the limbs perform their musical tasks in a kind of "isolation" (to borrow the term from Rosser, Decroux and Marceau) from the body's core.

Breath is tremendously important to any activity and crucial to things that require delicate control of both mind and body. It does not so much occur to me to "keep control" of my breathing or to do anything special with it as much as to make sure I continue doing it in a constant and gentle manner.

Some meditation traditions pay very close attention to the breath and I think this kind of practice is beneficial to theremin playing. My breath flowing down through my heels, my heels fully feeling the floor, the central column of my body erect and hollow allowing full and deep flowing of the breath; that is the base I try to start from and return to constantly while playing.

Any sort of performance will present new and unexpected intrusions into your well practiced presentation, and practicing your poise and center will pay off when you have to return to them instantly after being shaken by some firecracker or something going off next to you.
Posted: 1/14/2009 8:36:54 AM

From: New York, NY

Joined: 2/13/2005

This long and interesting thread is continued here
Aerial Fingering II (

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