Reflecting on the late Barbara Buchholz's upcoming birthday, one thing I always admired about her performances is how she put so much physical motion and theater into her playing. Yes, it makes the performance much harder to throw yet another dimension of motion and stability into the mix, but I think it takes the instrument to another level, and isn't that one of the reasons we're all here?
Must we always look like zombies when we play theremin?
I don't think that I look like a zombie when I play my theremin. I just look really focused. I noticed that when I go from lower to higher notes, I pull a slight smile. When I hold notes for a while, I close my eyes...
"I don't think that I look like a zombie when I play my theremin. I just look really focused." - Amey
I dont think that women tend to look as "zombified" as men do when they play the theremin.. I think that "really focused" can be easily mistaken for "vacant" - particularly with men.
I think Barbara looked "really focused" - even in the "lightest" of her performances - And she was always steady and stable - only her arms moving - from what I have seen.
I think men have several ways open to them to avoid looking like zombies..
They can wrap themselves in bandages and look like mummies -
Or they can dress up to distract the audience from their "vacant" look (I have even heard of someone dressing themselves in chain mail ! - Imagine that!.. Just keep the horse out of the pitch field - LOL ;-)
Or they could wear a riot mask so that the "zombie" look cant be seen .. Nope, on second thoughts, not such a good idea - We all know there are plenty of REAL zombies who hide behind those masks!
Barbara Buchholz tended to look more zombified when she played precision theremin than when she played aleatorically (and she was decidedly more skilled at the latter than the former).
Thereminists who play experimental and "free music" have the luxury of being able to move around when they play because the genre does not demand accuracy of tempo or pitch. This allows the musician to engage in a variety of entertaining antics. Thereminist Jon Spencer (of THE BLUES EXPLOSION) is a master of this.
One of the problems with Barbara B's theremin technique from the standpoint of precision playing was the amount of tension she carried in her arms and hands. Her playing position, with elbows raised and shoulders slightly hunched, clearly shows this. Any tension in excess of the MINIMUM amount required to perform the task will fight your ability to express yourself and play accurately, and it can ultimately lead to all sorts of physical problems from tennis elbow to carpal tunnel (as many people on this list have discovered).
I think the secret of Clara Rockmore's extraordinary technique lies in the fact that she never used any more energy than necessary. Her playing was as expressive as it was because she herself was relaxed. Even the muscles of her face were relaxed (hence the blank, faraway, "zombie" expression) with the exception of an occasional raising of the eyebrows during a particularly poignant moment in the music.
Doing any serious analysis on the "zombie look" is probably not possible as we dont have any certified zombies to compare against.. But my (serious) thought are these:
1.) There are people who do not look like "zombies" to me, but who nonetheless manage to what I regard as "precision playing" - The only issue in Coalports last posting which I completely disagree with is with reference to Clara "Even the muscles of her face were relaxed (hence the blank, faraway, "zombie" expression)" - I do not think Clara ever shows anything remotely looking like a >> "zombie" expression <<
2.) I think there are some people who are more "natural" with the theremin than others - Precision thereminists, in my view, have varying degrees of this "natural" ability, and that this largely determines the extent to which they carry the "zombie" look -
3.) I think there are people who, through massive effort and dedication can master precision theremin playing despite having a lower level of inate "natural" ability than others - It is these people who most exhibit the "zombie" expression - They are not able to relax or spare any thought or allow any distraction of paying attention to how they look - they require everything they have to be totally focussed on the one thing - playing.
4.) Often, in my view, the focus on precision by those who are not "naturals" impacts on their performance in other ways than just their "look" - Despite the improvement (or because of it) in the precision of their playing, their performance carries less "life" or "emotion".
5.) I think that there is strong pressure for some who are or aspire to be "pro" thereminists to concentrate more on "precision" than on the "emotional" aspects of their performance - If they are off key or make any other technical errors, they will be jumped on by other precision thereminists and their flaws ruthlessly exposed - This "feedback" is mostly intended to be constructive - However, If someone produces a technically perfect performance lacking in "emotion" they will not recieve any (or anything like the same degree of) "constructive" critisism.
This was brought home to me some years back, when an extremely hard working dedicated thereminist (who IMO looks more like a "zombie" when playing than anyone else I have seen, LOL) produced a relaxed and IMO highly entertaining video where he was not concentrating on precision, and didnt look like a zombie. I have looked at this individuals "precision" performances, but none of them ever touched my musical "soul" .. The only piece this thereminist has ever produced which I really enjoyed was this one relaxed performance.
Alas, this one performance fell well short of what was expected even from an aspiring "pro" - There were loads of pitch and timing errors and other "horrors" - And the "constructive critisism" machine kicked in at full force - But entirely ignored the life and fun and "emotion" of the performance.
There are, IMO, few people who have the ability to play precision theremin AND impart "spirit" and "emotion" to their performance - and these people tend to look less "zombified" than others.
Given the choice between "precision" and "soul-lessness" I personally prefer to sacrifice precision. I think that there are thereminists who look like zombies because they are trying too hard to be precise and are performing in fear of what the critics will say. The fact that they look like zombies doesnt bother me - but the fact that is that their music doesnt touch me.
I think I spend 80% of my attention to expression and emotion in my playing, 10% on my balance (cause I am almost deaf in my right ear and sometimes if i focus a lot, i start to loose my balance) and the other 10% on pitch. I have finally given control to my brain and I trust that it knows what "i am supposed to do" pitch wise... and hopefully, it is correct :)
'Given the choice between "precision" and "soul-lessness" I personally prefer to sacrifice precision. I think that there are thereminists who look like zombies because they are trying too hard to be precise and are performing in fear of what the critics will say. The fact that they look like zombies doesnt bother me - but the fact that is that their music doesnt touch me.' - Fred
This would be my preference also if one had to be sacrificed for the other.
Obviously, in an ideal world the precision and emotion would be there in huge and equal quantities.
Not-with-standing the previous posts, in my experience playing music, I have come across as what can be best be described as 'musician's face'-the faces which the musician pulls in the course of playing what they play. It doesn't seem to be instrument specific as I've seen many players contort their face, beat the beat with their tongue, squint, frown and grimace in an effort to get the tune out.
Usually beginners have the worse cases of musicians face although I have seen it in experienced players. Sometimes it's actually quite funny to watch...
Usually, the more experienced players manage to loose the face contortions to the extent where they are able to talk to others whilst playing, calling key signatures and the like.
The thing is, I'm not sure that this face thing applies to theremin players. If anything the default beginner's face is one of stillness and total concentration.
Maybe it's the case in the theremin where more experience brings a more relaxed facial expression and beyond that, hopefully to a place where the expression isn't a 'far away' look (or 'glaikit' as we scots might say) but a 'normal' look, whatever that might be!
Fred: 'Given the choice between "precision" and "soul-lessness" I personally prefer to sacrifice precision.'
Precision, from the musical/theremin point of view, is a measurable, definable, quantifiable thing.
Soulfulness on the other hand, like beauty, is in the eyes/ears of the beholder. What one person finds soulful, someone else might find atrocious.
Personally, I am unlikely to be moved by a singer who sings off key, no matter how much "soul" is poured into the performance. There are singers who, for one reason or another, have lost their technique but not their "soul" and I find I am unable to listen to them. It's like watching a train wreck. Billie Holiday is one of them.
Then there are singers with fabulous technique but no soul whatsoever, and I can't listen to them either.....actually that's not true. I CAN listen to them but I don't really enjoy what they do even though I admire their amazing technical prowess. Celine Dion is one of them.
Ideally, the complete musician must have both technique and soul. The whole purpose of skill is to facilitate expression and the one is useless without the other.
"This would be my preference also if one had to be sacrificed for the other.
Obviously, in an ideal world the precision and emotion would be there in huge and equal quantities." - RoyP
"Ideally, the complete musician must have both technique and soul. The whole purpose of skill is to facilitate expression and the one is useless without the other." - Coalport
And fortunately, there are a handful of thereminists who manage this on every or almost every performance they do, and manage it without the zombie look.
But if my enjoyment of theremin music was completely restricted to the performances from these people, well, I would probably get bored by the limited number of performances I could listen to.. I am fortunate - I enjoy a large range of music, and am not too fussy about precision in any genre (although I do find that imprecise pitch in classical music is more irritating than in many other genre - perhaps this is because, whilst I enjoy a lot of classical stuff, it is not usually my first choice - the performance really needs to be excellent [to my ears] for me to bother with it).
I must also say that I find thereminists pitch errors (unless extreme) far less irritating than vocalists being off-key.
If anything bugs me about theremin performance in general, it is not the "zombie look" or even the fact that thereminists are "off key" more often than other instrumentalists - It is the fact that there are classical pieces which have become "standards" for the theremin - I do wish thereminists spent their energy on other works rather than trying to "compete" with Clara - They will never better (and probably never match) Clara's performances.
"Precision, from the musical/theremin point of view, is a measurable, definable, quantifiable thing." - Coalport
Which is why it is picked on as the thing to "constructively" criticise (or praise) - It is "tangible".. What I am saying, I suppose, is that this "bias" towards the "tangible" elivates the importance of precision - But to me, the "intangibles" (which one cannot objectively criticise or praise) are equally, if not more important.