Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Theremin Cellos

One of the things I didn't get to mention in my review of the Varese concerts at Lincoln Center is the use of two Theremin cellos in "Ecuatorial" (based on texts from the Mayan book of the dead). These appear to be of Floyd Engels' manufacture. Engels builds recreations of the original Leon Theremin-built instruments.

Theremin designed the instrument to Varese's specifications, specifically for this piece. He built a number of these instruments but all but two were lost or destroyed. The two remaining were broken for years, leaving Engels had to "reverse engineer" the instruments to reconstruct them. The Engels instruments were debuted in a performance of "Ecuatorial" at June in Buffalo in October of 2002.

Basically, the instrument is a Theremin triggered from a contact strip along a fretboard rather than from an antenna. The left hand fingers pitches like a cellist stopping the strings. The right hand (the bow hand for a cellist) controls a volume lever.

As you can see from the photo, the Theremin cello look like "Warehouse 13" artifact--a rockin' retro chic in black and bronze and knobs, complete with its own fabric-and-screen-covered amplifier/speaker box. For Varese's piece, each one sounded like a straight-up Theremin--kind of crappy, in other words, but entirely appropriate to the music. Obviously, being an electronic instrument, it would be appropriate to filter the sound through any kind of effects, giving the instrument a flexibility similar to an electric guitar. That is harder to do than it appears however because the Theremin cello's sound-producing mechanism is wired into its amplifier/speaker box. The instrument itself sends a signal but doesn't produce any sound. Even without this limitation, most Theremin players I've heard stick close to the original sound (think the sound used in the Beach Boys "Good Vibrations," although I think that was a related instrument, not a true Theremin). Why, I'm not sure. I think they think it's beautiful. Some days I think they're right.

Common wisdom is that Theremin is an instrument who's time has come and gone and that now it is mainly a historical instrument. But there a lot of Theremin players out there that would disagree with that, who see it as a vital, evolving instrument with a growing repertoire. Hopefully the exposure at Lincoln Center will spark a renewed interest Theremin's inventions and some new music for them.

Meantime, there's a wonderful (and sad) documentary on Leon Theremin that I can recommend to everyone, called "Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey", (1994, directed by Steven M. Martin). Great film.


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