Microtonal Fluid Piano

Posted: 3/22/2012 1:48:39 PM

From: In between the Pitch and Volume hand ~ New England

Joined: 12/17/2010

Coalport wrote:

"Yes, it the passion of a small group of hobbyists and dedicated enthusiasts (of which I am one) but it is not taken seriously by the music world, nor is it likely to be. Why is this? Because, as Martenot said long ago, it is too limited and too difficult. There are theremin festivals and events all over the world, and like-minded people come together from far and wide to celebrate the instrument but when you hear the music they are making on it, you quickly realize that their love and appreciation of the instrument far surpass their ability to play it."

I have to agree with what you wrote. But I think the problem with the theremin is that people who play it have very limited ressources and limited understanding of what the instrument is capable of. I see a wide spectrum: It can do crazy weird sounds and it can be played with such love and musicality that it will tug on your heart strings.

Limited ressources: as in there are virtually NO theremin teachers out there, cause there are just as many ways to play a theremin (either good or bad) as I have socks in my dresser. When you play the flute, you go through a certain method (like suzuki, study books, exercises) and get somewhat proficient at it as time goes by and practice has been done in an efficient way. I guess I am not making myself clear here, but to put it bluntly, when you play the piano, when you want to play a "C4" you can press the note and you are on a C4. In the theremin, it just takes control, amazing pitch and also expression when you execute a note. It's just incredibly complicated and infinitely intricate! When I start thinking about it, it just makes my head spin.

Understanding of the Instrument: Per example, I've seen a video on YT about this man who is trying to play A-ha's "Take On Me" on the theremin. Though I commend his courage, this is just not a song you can play on the theremin at all, fast passages, jumps etc it's jut not a good fit for the instrument. That's the problem we witness on YT, there are just too many people that try to do just too much with the instrument and it all goes downhill from there. As long as they do their descent on their own, i'll stay right here, keep on practicing and play pieces that I feel comfortable playing and know that the theremin (and I) can handle. The theremin will sound as good as the thereminist behind it. That I'll always remember and take to heart with me for every pieces I select to play/perform on the theremin. The theremin has given my life so much more color and happiness... I plan on playing for many decades to come :)

Posted: 3/23/2012 10:38:24 AM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

Amey: "I see a wide spectrum: It can do crazy weird sounds and it can be played with such love and musicality that it will tug on your heart strings."

Just about any musical instrument played with real musical sensitivity can "tug at your heart strings" but people don't agree on what constitutes "musicality" and what constitutes garbage. 

Since I have been playing the theremin, I have noticed that the instrument attracts a disproportionate number of people with a poor sense of pitch. For these folks, the theremin is everything that RCA promised it was back in 1929; easy to play, requiring no practice or acquired skill, as simple as humming or whistling a tune.

The person you referred to above whose "courage" you commended, may well believe what he is doing is great. Often, when you point out to these people that they are off key, or out of tempo, they don't even know what you're talking about.

I think it's great that an instrument exists - the theremin - that can offer personal musical satisfaction to people who love music but who have little or no aptitude for it. Unfortunately, they are often disappointed when they go public, and cannot understand why others do not find their musical offerings as brilliant as they do. 

I hope all this doesn't sound like a monster put-down. I think it's all just part of the colorful reality of the instrument. 

Posted: 3/23/2012 5:29:55 PM

From: Nashville, TN, USA

Joined: 12/22/2011

I'm a theremin newbie (coalport's terminology: WMEMTN= white middle aged eclectic musician theremin newbie) but NOT a novice musician.  My formal musical training and experience is as a reed doubler: i.e. clarinet, saxophone, and flute.  I have seen the same thing that coalport comments on re saxophone...Hey, it's easy to play, just put a buzzy reed on that sucker, blow hard, and VOILA...you're a saxophonist...There are lots of people who play sax, but only a subset of these play in tune..One has to use breath support, embouchre and throat techniques to put the note where it should be...just pushing down the key doesn't cut it...It requires tedious work at long tone exercises to get intervals/ notes to play in tune...I am applying my reed experience to trying to play in tune on the theremin...I'm getting better, but still have a ways to go, and by no means ready to post anything on YouTube or anywhere else...I know from previous experience that recording will reveal some brutal realities about one's true abilities..

One of the fine reed players I looked up to used to joke "A gentleman is someone who knows how to play saxophone....and then DOESN'T".. this joke kind of applies to theremin also...:-)

Posted: 3/23/2012 11:29:07 PM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

Unfortunately, there are no "transferrable skills" that can be acquired on some other instrument and then applied to the theremin. If you're a guitar player and decide you want to play the banjo or the ukelele, or a clarinet player who wants to play the oboe, you will have a head start on those with no experience at all.

With the theremin, we're all equally LOST!

Clara Rockmore always said that the theremin should never be anyone's first instrument because you can't learn music on it. Certainly skill on another instrument will help with music, but it will do nothing for theremin technique because the theremin differs fundamentally from all other musical devices.

It is in an instrumental "family" of its own.


Posted: 3/23/2012 11:45:15 PM
Thomas Grillo

From: Jackson Mississippi

Joined: 8/13/2006

@coalport, I agree a hundred percent. However. What we learn in the way of artistic expression on a violin, can, to some degree be applied to the theremin. In my case, I started on a violin, and grew up around classical music. The methods I use with the theremin have been developed to produce expressive articulation which, to "some" degree, emulate some of the articulation of the violin. The same goes for my expreience with voice. I try to use vibrato techniques which closely emulate a vocalist's vibrato. But yeh, you're not going to be able to move everything you know about one instrument over to the theremin. It's very nature prevents this. I often get asked by parents if they should get their kids a theremin as a first instrument, to which I answer with a resounding "NO". Mainly for the reason that "music" is best learned on conventional instruments. Later, much later, the theremin can certainly be excelent for developing, and expressing "musicality".

Posted: 3/24/2012 10:40:27 AM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

The problem with the theremin when it comes to "developing and expressing musicality" is that the instrument is limited. 

I have often heard people say that the theremin is limited only by the imagination of the person playing it. This is a very encouraging and inspirational statement to make, and many people subscribe to it, but it's not true.

Part of the limitation of the theremin is the instrument itself, and part is simply human physiology. Even before we start to play, we are confronted by the fact that we cannot know what note we are going to sound until we actually hear it. Off hand, I can't think of any musical instrument, other than the theremin, with this kind of built-in restriction. The instrument is also incapable of "attack" (so it can't play a true staccato) and the difficulty of playing accurate intervals increases with the size of the jump between notes until accuracy is impossible. 

As many have said in the past, the theremin is a "one trick pony". They are right. It is. But that trick, when it is done well (which is rare) is uniquely magical. There is nothing else like it in the entire musical lexicon.

From the purely acoustic point of view (forgetting the novelty of space control), what do you suppose that "magic" is? Why d'ya s'pose a simple scale played skillfully on a theremin might enchant an audience more than the same scale played with equal skill on a flute or an oboe? 


Posted: 3/24/2012 1:22:35 PM

From: Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, UK

Joined: 10/5/2005

Or to present an alternative viewpoint, the problem with the theremin is that people are determined to use it for something that it is not well suited to.

This is fine, I have the greatest respect for people who master the art of pushing a rope or nailing jelly to a wall, but it's not for me.

Last night I watched a programme about progressive rock on the TV, where a guitar virtuoso (Mont Campbell of Egg) was pointing out that punk rock - the reaction to prog - was generally out of tune. Quote; "this is a marvelous home-made solution to harmonic invention - instead of learning a bunch of fancy chords, just don't tune your guitar".

Yes, being happy to play "the notes between the notes" is also limiting - you can't play existing repertoire, but it does take it out of the "one trick pony" zone.


Wherein lies the magic? IMO it is in the instability of the pitch. Even when a note is held as still as humanly possible the pitch varies in the same way that a singer's voice varies in pitch (which it does, even if it is not sufficient variation for the listener to be consciously aware of it) which gives it an uncannily human quality. For this reason it may be preferable to think of the theremin as an "electronic voice" rather than an "instrument".


Posted: 3/24/2012 6:34:11 PM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

Gordon: ....being happy to play "the notes between the notes" is also limiting - you can't play existing repertoire, but it does take it out of the "one trick pony" zone.


Yes, Gordon, it takes you out of the "one trick pony" zone and puts you squarely into the "flogging a dead horse" zone! 

As far as the Punk phenomenon of the 1970's is concerned, it was an extraordinary social movement with its own lifestyle, fashion, language, art, etc. Music was really only a part of a much broader and rather anti-social philosophy. Many people claim Punk died when it was absorbed by the mainstream and capitalized on by the very establishment it sought to expose. 

Enantiodromia = the tendency of things to turn, over time, into their opposite.

I agree with you about the "human" aspect of the sound of the theremin, and I think that is what accounts for our fascination with it. Even when it was used in the 40's and 50's as a tool to induce fear on film soundtracks, its ability to do this effectively depended largely on the instrument's similarity to a nervously wavering, shaky human voice. 

I have observed that the further away you get from the "vox humana" the less interested general audiences are in the music you are making on your theremin. Clara Rockmore may have felt this too, and it is perhaps the reason why she used only one ("the singing lady") of the many different timbre choices that Lev Termen built into her custom instrument. 

Yes, the avant garde has its enthusiasts, and they do appreciate music that is outside the commonly accepted boundaries, but these people constitute a small fraction of one percent of the music-loving public. Classical music lovers are only about 5 percent of the audience for western music worldwide. 

The other day I heard a piece of music played on a dentist's drill. Apparently the pitch of the drill can be controlled by pushing, with varying degrees of force, the bit of the drill into a chunk of hardwood.........or perhaps into a tooth! 

Marathon Man

Posted: 3/24/2012 8:27:49 PM

From: Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, UK

Joined: 10/5/2005

As you have correctly pointed out on previous occasions, the primary audience for the avant garde and the experimental is musicians. This is demonstrated by the influence it has on mainstream music. The music that I listened to as a teenager which was way outside of the commonly accepted boundaries started to appear as a discernible influence in popular music a decade or so later. There are Throbbing Gristle tracks that now sound like dated pop music and music by The Clash and The Sex Pistols can be heard on TV shows and advertisements.    

Sting and Ke$ha have theremins and Skrillex, who is described in wikipedia as playing in the genres of dubstep, electro house, glitch music, post-hardcore and metalcore is bringing a pop sensibility to these small-audience genres that got him three Grammys last year.

The mainstream is the amalgamation of many smaller streams. The river always flows but beyond a certain age people become static, fixed. You and I, Peter, the future no longer belongs to us. It will be what it will be, for better or worse. Perhaps it will have theremins in it. 

Posted: 3/24/2012 11:43:07 PM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

Gordon: "You and I, Peter, the future no longer belongs to us. It will be what it will be, for better or worse. Perhaps it will have theremins in it. "


The theremin will endure. Perhaps not as an instrument of the mainstream, but certainly as the instrument of a small "fringe" of assorted pioneers and romantics. If, in the future, it shows any sign of dying out, you and I shall be forced to reincarnate and save it!

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