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The Theremin

The Theremin

The theremin, which may always be associated with “space” noises more than anything else, is a marvel of scientific invention and a joy that has been rediscovered over and over in the world of independent music. A brief history: the theremin is named after Leon Theremin, who invented the instrument in 1919. Unlike most other instruments, you don’t actually “play,” meaning have contact with, the theremin. Instead, it reacts, through sensors on two antennas that protrude from the instrument, to the relative closeness of one’s hands to the sensors. One hand controls the volume of the sound, and the other the pitch. Combined with the sometimes-eerie sounds it produces, it is the closest approximation to science fiction becoming reality in the twentieth century. Maybe. It’s a heck of a lot more impressive than a Segway, at least.

While the theremin stands out both for its user-friendliness, its inherent and exciting oddity, and the many possible expressions of its sound, by no means is it a popular - despite its cult favoritism - instrument in rock and roll. Occasionally used here in there, musicians often turn to the more versatile synthesizer for a particular sound that is comparable with what can be produced by a theremin. Still, the unique instrument is still enough of an anomaly to receive particular notice. Here is a selection of some of the modern theremin’s particularly notable appearances in modern rock and roll.

Mercury Rev's “Holes”Mercury Rev front man Jonathan Donahue has a love for the psychedelic music and odd sounds, which is partially why he and his band trotted out the theremin for the song “Holes” on 1998’s Deserter’s Songs. Though Mercury Rev would continue over the years to net less critical and much less commercial acclaim than Donahue’s old band The Flaming Lips, Deserter’s Songs was such a pinnacle for the group, all-over-weirdness included, that the album now has a comfortable spot in rock history. Should they thank themselves, their lucky stars, or that theremin? Consider this: once Donahue began to concentrate less on the theremin and more on the glockenspiel or singing saw, the albums dropped in quality as well as popularity. Coincidence? Probably. But still...

The Beach Boys'Good Vibrations” – To be absolutely clear, the famous sound on this single that catapulted The Beach Boys to the top of the charts while simultaneously forecasting the abortion of their landmark Smile was actually not a theremin, but an Electro-theremin. Not to dumb it down, but this creation, modeled directly after the original, was less a step in a brand new direction, and more a companion to the theremin with a different way of producing sound. Still, the resemblances are so keen that the theremin and electro-theremin can be said to be not-so-distant cousins. Furthermore, Brian Wilson’s inventive use of this off-beat instrument was important for two reasons: one, it made boldly manifest that Wilson’s arranging and imaginative genius knew few bounds, and two, it renewed interest in the psychedelic potential of the theremin, electro- or not.

Neutral Milk Hotel's “Ghost” – Fast forward to 1998. Jeff Mangum and his Elephant Six brethren were all enormously influenced by Brian Wilson, sure, but whereas Apples in Stereo frontman Robert Schneider took away from those recordings a love of pure, unadulterated pop, Neutral Milk Hotel’s Mangum preferred the storied complexities of Wilson’s group, not to mention his love of musical whimsy. Adding the theremin to “Ghost,” played on this recording by multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster, gives the album an unworldly, idiosyncratic feel that runs through all of the band’s music. “Ghost” is not the only theremin Neutral Milk Hotel jam, but an especially notable one.

Sufjan Stevens'In the Devil’s Territory” – From Stevens’ scripture-heavy release Seven Swans comes this number, in which the theremin is given an uplifting lilt thanks to a building crescendo and Stevens’ weary proselytizing. While his later recordings tone down the heavy-handed Bible thumping, they also feature less theremin – an unfortunate bargain that most listeners made. Regardless, Stevens use of the theremin here is so like him – from his noise record exploring the Chinese Zodiac in theme to two albums about Michigan and Illinois, respectively, the man is nothing if not ambitious.

Marilyn Manson's “Dope Hat” – It is hilarious to look back on Marilyn Manson after the Christian-baiting and knee-jerk goth tendencies have been revealed as thinly masked shock rock that continues to age very poorly. And still, the band’s 1994 album Portrait of an American Family had its share of good songs that were often eclipsed in the ensuing waves of controversy and attention their “Sweet Dreams” cover garnished. The lead single of this record, “Dope Hat” features member Madonna Wayne Gacy on theremin, relishing in all of the instrument’s “spooky” glory. Boiling this song down, if you can get past the melodramatic lyricism and Manson’s put-on snarl; it’s a juicy, well put-together piece of confectionery rock candy. The theremin is just icing on the cake, but a nice touch nonetheless.

Aside from these recordings, it also bears mentioning that the theremin is perhaps an even more crucial tool live than in the studio. Small models are available for easy travel, and many of the entries on the comprehensive if occasionally inaccurate theremin world note musicians like Elvis Costello and Led Zeppelin, who don’t gravitate toward the theremin typically, but have been known to rock it during concerts.

And while this list harped on just a few notable theremin performances, know that more are being made each day. Old-timey revivalists Norfolk and Western play a mean one, and Austin instrumental band The Octopus Project are also experts, with member Yvonne Lambert even going to a local school to demonstrate its mechanisms to a group of wide-eyed youngsters – proof that while the theremin might be an old invention, and still a little obscure, it’s doubtful to be forgotten anytime soon.

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