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MMD > Archives > July 1999 > 1999.07.03 > 08Prev  Next


Theremin
By Douglas Henderson

Hello MMD readers,  Am running a different laptop in the studio this
morning (have four of them!), so I don't have the prior issue of the
Mechanical Music Digest on this hard drive, but I do believe that the
URL for the "Theremin-Pianola" issue of 'The Pianola News' was listed.
If not, here's the address:

    http://www.wiscasset.net/artcraft/oldnews4.htm

The article appeared on January 25, 1998 and is one of the back issues
listed under the current edition which features some interesting sales
techniques used for the Ampico in the 1920's, a text which definitely
was not to be shared with the prospective customers!  The current issue
was launched on the Artcraft Music Rolls site on April 8, 1999, at URL

    http://www.wiscasset.net/artcraft/rollnews.htm

By the way, we have those 78's of "Spellbound Concerto" at our
museum, The Musical Wonder House, as well as some melodic earlier
78's, often with piano accompaniment, on Orthophonic Victor Records.
The instrument was listed as 'The Victor Theremin' and these were,
I'm told, issued to help the radio stores market the difficult-to-
master instrument while the RCA slogan stated, "If you can hum a tune
you can play the RCA Theremin."  (Sure!)

For a short time RCA made a combination Electrola (phonograph) plus
Theremin combination with built-in speakers; one of these was featured
in 1949 at El Cerrito Junior-Senior High School in California, during
our student body assembly.  Generally speaking, what one sees today
is the "lectern" style -- something like a schoolmaster's desk with
open legs -- which requires an external speaker.  This is the RCA Model
AR-#1264, of which our Aeolian-RCA is the only known example at this
time.

Back in the early 1960's, I made some Duo-Art rolls to accompany
the instrument, playing simple melodies (much as the Orthophonic 78's
did), and these were presented at The Musical Wonder House on guided
tours.  For a loud-speaker I used a Radiola #106 (or was it #160?),
which turned out to be the EXACT model that was used in the old RCA
advertising.

However, inventor Lev Theremin realized that the speaker should be
_elevated_ and near the performer's head, so that the pitch could be
hastily corrected before the audience heard the notes.  Thus, his
Theremin Studio supplied speakers on Art Deco supports, and even today
the modern instruments by Moog and others have the elevated speaker
rather than what was designed to sit underneath a Radiola of the
period.

 [ The vacuum tube Theremin generates a sine wave with no harmonics,
 [ and so it's somewhat difficult for the performer to perceive the
 [ intonation in the presence of other loud sounds.  -- Robbie

It should be mentioned that the RCA vacuum tube Theremin has a whole
different sound aura from the brassy, quick-to-react modern transistor
models.  I heard many of them a few years ago at the recent Portland,
ME Theremin Festival, where Dennis James, Robert Moog, Lydia Kavina
(Theremin's relative and final student) gave a Seminar and played for
audiences over the course of several days.

(A local art movie theatre ran a number of the supposedly 'scary'
movies using them on soundtracks, and I believe "Spellbound" was in
the roster.  The series ended with the Ed Wood motion picture of recent
date, featuring a score by Lydia Kavina.  I skipped the movies, having
seen most of them years ago, and I still believe that the Theremin is
an untapped musical potential, just like the Pianola and the 'repro-
ducing' player-piano are in our time.)

The original RCA AR-#1264 has a 'musical saw' or 'glissando' effect
of sliding from pitch to pitch, making it impossible for music like
Nola or Flight of the Bumble Bee.  Meanwhile, Clara Rockmore's custom-
built model (featured on the Moog recordings mentioned in my previous
posting) is like a racing car!  Lev Theremin built one for her which
responded to the slightest finger twitch, which accounts for Vocalise
(Rachmaninoff) and The Swan (Saint-Saens) being so spectacular on the
Moog-produced Rockmore LP, now on CD.

My instrument, one of several which was rebuilt by piano technician
Reid Welch in Florida, has a new "dual circuit" installed, based on
the Rockmore instrument, which he studied in person shortly before her
recent death.  A lever can be switched to allow somebody like me,
playing the Pagan Love Song, to attempt Pizzicato Polka, in which case
-- not being a trained violinist, as Clara was originally (having
appeared with Emil Sauer in Russia as a child prodigy!) -- my Theremin
performance would probably fail in the latter style of music.  Still,
it's wonderful to know that our early 1930's Aeolian-RCA model will
have the musical equivalent of Fluid Drive and also that of a 5-speed
transmission, if one wishes to compare the instrument's response to
automobiles!

I have _never_ heard a contemporary Theremin which had the warmth of
the old tube models, and this is why some enthusiasts are attempting
to bring back a modern instrument based on the old vacuum tube designs.
This probably has more to do with the differences between tubes and
transistors, but it's been my experience that the new ones sound like a
bumblebee, or raspy "buzz", while rapidly jumping from pitch to pitch.

When those of us who were of my age group compared notes at the There-
min Seminar in Maine, it seems that 'we' (in the 55-75 age bracket, my
being 60 then) all experienced an RCA Theremin performance in the
school assembly circuit, or during the final years of vaudeville, which
combined movies with stage shows on the RKO circuit.  The Theremin
shows left a definite impression upon us, and we are/were anxious to
get off the rock-music sound effects bandwagon, as well as forgetting
the horror film use of the instrument, which anybody can achieve by
flailing one's arms about.

Since we all "knew" the source of the electronic sound in the movies,
we weren't terrified either!  (This echoes some of the statements by
Clara Rockmore about the misuse of the instrument, which, in the tube
model, has an eerie and memorable violin or 'cello sound when playing
solo melodies set against a piano or dance band accompaniment.)

One of the recordings played during the Seminar was the Victor Record
of Dancing in the Dark, and it was very good.  Unfortunately, that was
followed by a lot of rock music (dare I say "junk" use?) of the instru-
ment as something in the noisy background.

This schism is holding back a true revival of the Theremin, since
musical study is essential before moving it from a noisemaker and into
the realm of a true musical instrument.  In Russia, a small "portable
radio" version of the Theremin was used for 'ear training' in schools,
to see who might benefit from violin lessons down the line.  I have seen
articles with illustrations of this recent-times electronic 'box', and
have no doubt that it separates the truly musical children from those
who would probably never be able to play a stringed instrument.  (The
Russian 'training' device has a name, but my articles which illustrate
and explain its attributes are stored elsewhere.)

After we bring our Theremin back to Maine, I'm planning on making a
cassette recording of it in tandem with the "AR" Duo-Art grand, with
which it was featured so many years ago.  If the 'reproducing' piano
has enough ornamentation, even somebody like me can get through a basic
melody with a certain amount of panache.

A final word about modern Theremin activities: Lydia Kavina played
Kern's Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Gershwin's Summertime and the popular
song Midnight In Moscow, among other pieces, at the open air concert in
downtown Portland.  She is truly the most skilled musician in this
niche medium today, in my book.  That recent performance, like the 1949
Theremin demonstration, I'll never forget!

Regards from Maine,

Douglas Henderson
Artcraft Music Rolls, Wiscasset, ME 04578
http://www.wiscasset.net/artcraft/


(Message sent Sat 3 Jul 1999, 14:06:32 GMT, from time zone GMT-0400.)

Key Words in Subject:  Theremin

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