The Theremin Instrumentation Project

Posted: 6/28/2015 6:05:38 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 7/29/2014

Well, I seriously doubt many (if any) of you will be the slightest bit interested in my new project, but I'm going to throw it out there anyway - adding to this thread as I progress. My goal is to write a bunch of pieces for theremin and a large variety of instrumental combinations (from solo instruments to full orchestra) to get a feel for what combinations of instruments and accompaniments sound good with the theremin - especially combinations that not many composers may have used much before (I don't need to put examples up for theremin and piano, etc.)

I plan at least 50 short pieces in a variety of styles using the various sample sets I have access to. So another thing that may come out of this is that people who are interested in writing for virtual instruments can get a feel for some of the different kinds of instrumental samples available today - as I have access to quite a few. I'll also post scores where I create them and accompaniment files in case anyone cares to try playing any of these pieces. Then perhaps this project will add a bit to the repertoire as well - and hopefully help trigger other composers to write for the instrument.

The goal is to get a reasonable idea what the theremin will sound like in these various instrumental combinations for when I want to write much longer and more serious pieces - not to show off my crappy theremin playing - especially up high (that hopefully will improve over the course of writing all these pieces). The goal is, on average, to write one example a week. So this is year long project. In general the pieces will not be that difficult for the theremin, as the whole point is to try an play them to get a feel for how things sound. 

Since I was tinkering around with Omnisphere that I mentioned in a previous thread started by Peter, I'll begin by looking at the theremin accompanied by a cappella voices. Not too many pieces I've seen written for that combination. I think there should be more as I personally like the setting. Here I used the same Jazz Mixed Stack vocal sample on "Dah" that I used in my initial experiment in the Omnisphere thread.

Test Case #1 - A Cappella Voices and Theremin

Carnival Waltz: Etherwave & a cappella quartet

Score: Carnival Waltz

Accompaniment: Carnival Waltz - Accompaniment

Observations: As I expected, when the theremin is playing down in the mid-vocal range, it can become a bit obscured, kind of just becoming one of the voices (which might be a desired effect in some cases) - though I tried to bring the dynamics of voices down when the theremin came into their range.  The setting sounds pretty good as long as I keep the theremin range isolated from the vocal parts. Though because the theremin can be rather vocal in its sound and presentation, my ears like it when it's a fifth to an octave above the vocal parts in very tonal music like this where the theremin is the main melody. It looses something against the voices when it's in the very high register two octaves or more above the voices unless a specific effect is desired there, though at the end when I test the high register I bring the vocal parts up higher as well to compensate a bit (though I'm playing much more out of tune there in this example - I have to practice more and post a better version of this).  

I think theremin and voices a combination composers interested in the instrument should think about writing more often.

Next up in the queue: Theremin and Cimbalom

Posted: 7/15/2015 3:21:56 AM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 7/29/2014

Test Case #2: Cimbalom and Theremin (or Ondes Martenot)

Cimbalism - for Cimbalom and Theremin (or Ondes Martenot)

Cimbalism - Score

Cimbalism - Accompaniment (EW Gypsy Cimbalom) 

The Cimbalom is a hammered dulcimer that is the national instrument of Hungary, but is also commonly found in other eastern European countries, Greece and for some strange reason is also popular in the Netherlands. Many countries have similar instruments, (Iran: Santur, Korea:  yanggeum, etc.) but the Cimablom in addition to its ethnic heritage has also been accepted as a “classical” concert instrument being used by Kodály (Háry János), Stravinsly (Ragtime, Renard), Boulez and other well-known composers as well as appearing in numerous film scores  (Ipcress File, Quiller Memorandum). Although there may be numerous players in Europe (maybe not classical players) you will likely find just as many top notch thereminists as cimbalomists in North America.

Sounding kind of like a piano that you would hammer the strings on (because that’s basically what it is), it has a very unusual string arrangement known to be hell to tune. Its normal concert instrument form is fully chromatic with a range from C2 to A6 (other variants exist, but best to keep to this range). Kind of goes to reason that if you like theremin with piano, Cimbalom and theremin might be up your alley as well - if you can find one and someone to play it. Fortunately there are reasonable sample libraries available for those who want to roll their own pieces and or get a good feel what the theremin/cimbalom combination sounds like.

Been experimenting with the Spitfire Grand Cimbalom virtual instrument (also East West Gypsy Cimablom – posted the accompaniment using that so you can hear the difference). Here I’m using the Spitfire instrument as I think it’s a bit more subtle and has more control than the East West. Since I’ve been playing with the Soniccouture Ondes Martenot virtual instrument the past couple days, I thought I’d give that a crack as you can get some reasonable theremin like sounds from it (and give you a break from my theremin playing). Need to play more with the package's vibrato as it’s kind of flutey without more enhanced vibrato in some registers and also trying to get an envelope shape that makes sense for theremin. Hopefully will do up a true theremin version soon (but I think this gives a good idea of what the cimbalom would sound like with a theremin).

Normally the Cimbalom plays up to two notes at a time (forget four mallet work like for vibes). The performer typically uses cloth covered mallets, though leather and other materials can be used. Wooden mallets for example can give a very different sound and good players can pluck the strings as well as hammer to create some amazing sounds, not to mention play incredibly fast. 

Ion Miu - Godfather of the Cimbalom

The cimbalom uses a repeated tremolo technique that is idiomatic to the instrument, glissandos are possible but around the tuning of the instrument’s adjacent strings. Players can even create harmonics. The instrument has a sustain/damper system kind of like a piano only it works in the opposite manner. The instrument sustains notes with pedal up and damps with it down. A very good discussion of technique is here for those who want to write for it: 

Writing for the Cimbalom

Since this is a very ethnic related instrument I thought I’d write a piece for it and theremin (or Ondes Martenot) incorporating some traditional Hungarian folk tunes (some taken from Bartok’s seminal work in Hungarian ethnomusicology). An important resource for Hungarian folk music is where you can find research work of Bartok and others.

The main true folk melody used in the piece (Megrakják a tüzet):

Megrakják a tüzet - Vocal Example (IMSLP)

Note that these cimbalom sample libraries support inverted damping options. That is, it will sustain/damp using a normal MIDI foot pedal as you would expect to perform on a piano (pedal down = sustain) as the cimbalom pedal works in reverse. This makes it easy for a pianist to play cimbalom samples from a normal MIDI keyboard without changing their established technique.

Also note that when playing virtual instruments, especially ethnic instruments that have established techniques, it is very easy to write and play music that is not possible on the real instrument. This can be good and bad. You can write music that creates new sounds and techniques not otherwise possible vastly expanding the musical palette of the instrument (perhaps for movie work) – but you can also easily write material that is unplayable which may get you into trouble if you want human to perform it.

I kept this piece rather simple as I thought too complex a texture was not really appropriate for a theremin accompaniment, but still added enough complexity to make it hopefully interesting with a number of texture changes. 

Observations:  As with a piano, you have to tone things back with the theremin, though in certain ranges the theremin (at least my simulated one here) can cut through the Cimbalom it seems when playing beneath it or above it. The sustain on the cimbalom I think has a nice sound with theremin, especially when playing long sustained notes above it. The Cimbalom can set up some nice rhythmic patterns that can be interesting against a longer theremin line. It certainly is an interesting combination that composers for theremin should explore - as most all cimbalom music can be played by piano - which is commonly used in scores like Stravinskly's Ragime when a cimbalomist is not available.

Next Test Cases Up: Theremin on Ice. Theremin accompanied by Tuned Wine Glasses/Goblets (bowed and struck), Glass Armonica, Cristal Baschet and Cloud Chamber Bowls.

Posted: 7/15/2015 10:17:39 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 2/17/2012

rkram53, I really like the Theremin / Cimbalom mix!

And IMO your Theremin playing isn't crappy at all, it's quite listenable - which is saying a lot when it comes to Theremin!

Posted: 7/16/2015 12:38:54 AM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 7/29/2014


Thanks. I also like the cimbalom a lot. Need to write a couple more pieces for it and theremin. A more traditional setting of a set of folk songs for thermein and cimbalom is what I am thinking about - some very simple pieces that might be used for practice as well. And of course if a cimbalom is not available a piano can always be used.

As for my theremin playing - I'm not where I wanted to be after a year (coming up in a couple months) - too much dilution with too many other projects. But my goal was never to become a professional thereminist. Still I need to practice a lot more.

I think you are going to like all the glass work accompaniments I'm working on now. Very interesting sample libraries and like Cimbalom, I doubt many people have written for theremin and any of these instruments.



Posted: 7/16/2015 3:07:11 AM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 2/17/2012

Rich, I gotta respect your dogged determination when it comes to the Theremin.  You're certainly where I wish I was at in terms of playing the thing.  And I'm no composer, but your skills seem quite developed and admirable.  Push on, this is a strangely (or not so strangely?) almost vacant sky, but with a few very bright stars shining in it.  I imagine most feel fairly alone when serving it (in whatever way they do) at the professional level.

Posted: 7/18/2015 6:40:18 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 7/29/2014

Test Case #3a - The Theremin on Ice - Theremin with Glass Instruments

Crystal Palace - Glass Music Test #1 - Tuned Glasses/Goblets & Theremin

Crystal Palace - Glass Music Test #1 - Score

Who hasn’t sat down at the dinner table and filled glasses to different levels and then played a tune of some sort by either striking them with a utensil or rubbing their rims with a wet finger? Well there are a number of instruments made of glass relying on just these techniques, one of which has been around for 250 years! The sound can be eerie to ethereal and in some ways rather theremin like (when played with wet fingers or bowed). I thought some experiments with glass instruments and theremin would be fun, unusual and hopefully fruitful for composers who might never think of this instrumental combination.

There are a few sample libraries that are based on glass instruments of various sorts. The two I’ll use here are Spitfire Audio’s “Kitchenware Glass” and Sonicouture’s “Glassworks2”. The Spitfire library contains a plethora of tuned glassware and ceramics (wineglasses, goblets, facecoolers, mugs, etc.) that are struck with various mallets (soft, hard) and sticks, bowed, and also played with the hand.

The Glassworks library centers on three instruments: 

1) The Glass Armonica (invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761 – basically spinning glass bowls/disks played with wet fingers, which was very popular in the day - Mozart and Beethoven wrote for it - Saint-Saëns even used it in Carnival of the Animals where zylophone is usually substituted).

2) The Cristal Baschet (an exciting instrument invented in 1952 by Bernard and Francois Baschet - made out of glass rods rubbed with wet fingers that in turn excite attached metal rods all connected to huge artistic megaphone like amplifiers - a work of art as must as an instrument as was its original intent)

3) Cloud Chamber Bowls (invented by Harry Partch in 1950 - a set of large hung bowls normally struck or sometimes bowed – basically glass gongs that can sound a bit like church bells when hit).

Glass Armonica Playing

Cristal Baschet Playing

Cloud Chamber Bowls

I thought I’d write a few very short pieces to hear how the theremin sounds with each of these different instruments and get a feel for how appropriate it might be to use the theremin in this setting (noting I can easily do things with the virtual instruments that would be difficult in real-life – like getting the three sets of tuned glasses I use here not to mention performers capable of playing them well). This of course is the beauty and advantage of using virtual instruments.

Test #1 – Crystal Palace (for Theremin [B3 Pro here] and Tuned Wine Glasses & Goblets)

This short piece accompanies the theremin with a set of bowed wine glasses and two sets of goblets struck with soft mallets (all from the Spitfire Audio collection). Wanted a very flowing sound so I used a lot of syncopation in the melodic line offset by the glass accompaniment where all voices are playing polyrhythmically against each other using  a variety of different tuplets. That basic pattern is then repeated so you don’t feel like it’s getting too random. Put a bit of delay/reverb on everything to map to the glasses that naturally reverberate. Makes the theremin almost sound doubled. A lot of reverb in this kind of rather static piece I think is warranted.

Observations: I really like this sonic combination, though I think the couple of minutes of texture created here is about all I want to hear without something new coming in (perhaps using different mallets or maybe adding some striking with hard objects). I didn’t try and normalize the volume too much here. The sample set for soft mallets does not create loud sounds. Seems to work best when the theremin is up high against the glasses mostly beneath it. Something that seemed to work nicely was at the end when I hold a high C# in the theremin and then cut it off having the bowed glass take over on the same pitch.

Now on to the Glass Armonica (hydrocrystalophone) and theremin test.

Posted: 7/19/2015 10:50:30 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 7/29/2014

Test Case #3b - The Theremin on Ice - Theremin with Glass Instruments

Ben There Done That - Glass Music Test #2 - Theremin and Glass Armonica

DreamScapes #1 - Score

Well some experiments are destined to failure. If old Ben Franklin had been around today he probably would have told me right off the bat to take my theremin away from his beloved Glass Armonica and keep it away - or attach it to a kite and see how well it fairs in a thunderstorm.

For this test I revoiced the accompaniment of my Dreamscapes #1 (theremin study) for Theremin and Synthesized Piano for Hydrocrystalophone (Glass Armonica). A nice writeup on composing for it is here:

Composing for Glass Armonica

Frankly, I had misgivings from the start as the Glass Armonica is more a melodic instrument that can play its own accompanying harmonies than an accompanying instrument. A number of issues that make the pairing a match not at all made in heaven are:

1. The practical playing ranges of the two instruments are rather similar. Although the Glass Armonica has no fixed range/configuration but in general its range is smack dab in the center of the practical theremin playing range for most melodic music. The sample library actually has a very large range in contrast to most instruments. I use a range from G3 to C6 (the sample library goes down even lower). That's probably a bit lower than many instruments.

2. The sound of the Glass Armonica is quite sine-like. Almost a chiff-organ pipe sound. Unless you are playing a theremin with a very buzzing quality (like the good old instruments) the two can be so close in sound that the thermein easily gets lost in that sonic wall of glass. 

3. Even if you try and play above the Armonica, there are still a ton of high harmonics floating around that will get in the way - and frankly taking the theremin up that high is going to just be piercing against the Glass Armonica.

4. The Glass Armonica has a rather long attack time and the fingers typically don't play exactly together and there is a long sustain after release which produces an accompaniment that is very sustained and not crisp (a very homogeneous musical texture). Now there may be pieces that can make use of this lovely sound but there also may be issue in accompanying a theremin which has an initial envelope that is quite similar in some ways. So not only the sound but also the basic envelope shapes can be similar again resulting is a sound that lacks clarity.

I did try playing (this is the the B3 Pro here) down low, but that really didn't sound that great as it takes away from the low end of the Armonica. Now with the sample library, I'm not exactly playing at the real Armonica dynamic level so perhaps with a real instrument the theremin might be brought to the forefront more, but I doubt the mix will be much more successful than the test piece here as the armonica can be quite loud and sound like its coming from all over the room, as can a theremin.

All in all, the first piece using tuned glasses was successful because I could easily vary the range of the glasses to suit the accompaniment and also use a variety of mallets, bows, etc. to create a much more varied texture.

So on to the Cristal Baschet with theremin. I'm having misgivings on this one too. But ever fearless, let's take the plunge and see what comes out.

Posted: 7/24/2015 2:26:42 AM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 7/29/2014

Test Case #3c - The Theremin on Ice - Theremin with Glass Instruments

The Cristal Plain - for Cristal Baschet and Processed Theremin

The Cristal Plain - Score

Well, as expected I had numerous issues with the Cristal Baschet (by way of the Soniccouture Glassworks2 sample library) and theremin. The Cristal Baschet is a very unique instrument and I really love it, but it can be very penetrating (certainly using the sample library and also from what I hear in web performances). The glass rods you vibrate with wet fingers are attached to metal rods that are in turn attached to a metal sounding board (called the flame). The resultant sound can be quite full and engulfing (using the sustained patch which emulates the most common playing technique – as opposed to striking the rods with mallets, etc). I found that my poor theremin was lost in the mix. Too big a sound -  though I need to try things against it at a very subdued dynamic level in another piece at some point as I really don't want to totally give up on this wonderful instrument.

The original idea was to write an ultra simple piece with a lot sustaining chords in the Cristal Baschet with a "plain" pentatonic melody in the theremin. So I wrote the piece and once I started mixing the two instruments, blech!

Well what to do? After a bit I thought, let’s go digital all in! I gave more melody to the Cristal Baschet in places and actually tried and use the theremin as an accompaniment of some sort. What I wound up doing was throwing a phased vibrating/panning effect using PSP N20 on long sustained dominant and later tonic theremin tones – basically adding a high pedal with the Etherwave Plus. Has a kind of sci-fi touch to it. Then I thought, heck – let’s just sample my Etherwave Plus and throw a Moog filter on it and play in the theremin melody on a keyboard. (Cheating? Who cares?).

So you might not hear that there is a theremin in here at all, but at least now it cuts through where I need it to. Perhaps not exactly what I wanted, but better than the original disaster. But in truth, I restructured the piece entirely for Cristal Baschet and its better. Alas, I fear, one more failure.

The Cristal Plain (Cristal Baschet only version)

On to the Cloud Chamber Bowls with theremin. This one will have to be experimental in keeping with Harry Partch - one of the 20th century's true innovative musical pioneers, especially in developing new instruments and working with microtonal music.

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