How I Fell In Love
With the Theremin
This is basically a stream-of-consciousness discussion of how I became enraptured by the Theremin.
In the Beginning
Fast-Forward to 1995
A Theremin materializes
My Theremin Debut
Finding Clara Rockmore
Zen and the Art of Theremin Playing
In the Beginning
Somewhere, in the deep recesses of my mind, I had some idea of what a theremin
was. When I was in grade school in rural Virginia we had assemblies a few times
a year where various things of esoteric interest were featured, including The
King of the Whistlers (the man whose life-distinction was that he whistled
the theme on the Andy Griffith Show). Another time we had a Mr.-Wizard-type scientist
who brought along cracking Tesla coils and the like. It seems to me that he, or
perhaps someone else at another assembly, also had a theremin. But I don't remember
very much about it at all.
On hot summer afternoons, after a day of working in Dad's huge vegetable garden, my family would sit around our old black-and-white television set, while shelling peas or snapping green beans. We would often watch science fiction movies on Saturday Science Fiction Theatre. I very clearly recall seeing The Day the Earth Stood Still. I remember being scared by the eerie music. Afterward, we kids ran through the house making woo-eee-woo sounds as we pretended we were space invaders taking over the planet.
I also remember when the Beach Boys hit Good Vibrations came out and there being some talk about the Theremin.
However, other than these vague anecdotal snippets, my interest in the theremin
and knowledge about it were casual at most.
Fast-Forward to 1995...
It all really started in August of 1995. I was looking for a movie to see one afternoon. I checked the film listings in the local paper and read the review for Steven M. Martin's documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey.
I read the very glowing review but did not really give it much thought. Then
when I picked up the next newspaper and it contained yet another must-see
characterization of the film, I paid closer attention. Then, when I read yet a
THIRD rave review, well, that's all she wrote.
My interest was piqued and, purely on a whim, decided to go see the film. In retrospect, it kinda puzzles me that my curiosity was so sudden and so immediate for a subject about which I had absolutely no interest or knowledge. Yet I could not wait to go see the film!
I went alone, not being able to coax anyone else to come along with me. None
of my friends had any interest in seeing this movie. As it turned out, I was glad
I went alone. You see, I watched this film and wept sobbed even
through most of it, intensely moved and touched. Something about the theremin's
melancholy tones, the bittersweet story about Leon Theremin and Clara Rockmore,
and the many sad mysteries that swirl around this little pocket of humanity, reverberated
deep through my being. My emotions responded in a most startling way. (But I was
not the only one: I could hear quite a few sniffles from the near-capacity audience
who watched this film with me, especially during that touching yet heartrending
reunion near the end.)
As I sat and watched this film, the knowledge came and grew, most intensely
that I would have a theremin. I did not know why or how, I just knew. I
had no idea where to find one, whether they were even still made or not, or what
the cost would be. I started asking around logical sources friends in the
electronics business or who are musicians. Time after time I ran into dead ends:
Gee, I haven't seen one of those things since the '50s! You'll never find
one! They haven't been made in 60 years! And so on.
A Theremin Materializes
Then, a week or so later, I was talking to a friend, Stan Kann,
who is a fine theater organist and who has a few other esoteric interests, including
a collection of vintage vacuum cleaners (another hobby I share
with him!). I started talking about the theremin and how this film had affected
me. He was interested in seeing the theremin documentary so I took him along,
not at all minding seeing it a second time!
After the movie, as we were driving home Stan commented, You know, I've
got a theremin. I bought it in the '60s to use on my TV show in St. Louis but
I could never get the darn thing to do much except make sound effects, like a
barking dog and a crying baby. I havent touched it in years. You couldda
knocked me over with a feather, as the cliché goes!
I mentioned that I sure would like to see it sometime. He said he would have to get it down out of his closet; that's where he thought it was. Then came the bombshell:
If you want it you can have it he said.
Did I want it! I could not sleep until the theremin was in my possession! I
went over to his house a couple of days later. He reached up into the back of
a closet and pulled out a small wooden case about the size of two small shoe boxes
placed end-to-end. It was a Moog Melodia solid-state Theremin from
the early 1960s.
I got it home, connected it to my stereo, took a deep breath ... and turned it on.
I waited for the heavenly tones to issue forth. What I heard instead was the
sound of a donkey braying, the sorts of sounds one hears a first-time clarinet
player making! I quickly found out that the theremin's muse is not easily or forcefully
mastered; it must be gently coaxed into our dimension of space and sound. That
first day I must have stood at the theremin for five or six hours, until my arms
and feet ached. But I could not pull myself away until I started getting the knack
of withdrawing its ethereal music.
Stan's theremin did not have a speaker or amplifier so I decided to make one.
I modeled it after the shape of the original theremin speakers, that is, an amplifier
forms a base from which two legs splay upward in a gentle v-shape about 7 feet
into the air, upon which I placed a wooden square speaker enclosure, tilted on
its side to form a diamond shape. It really looks and sounds great!
Once I got used to the thing and figured how to tune it, I realized the capacitors that controlled the pitch and volume were not working correctly. I found Robert Moogs phone number and got in touch with Big Briar (his company) to see if I could get replacement capacitors. Sure enough, they were available, and I received them in a couple of days. I replaced the old, cracked capacitors and now they work just fine.
I am left-handed and quickly figured out I play the theremin more proficiently
left-handed; e.g., I control pitch with my left hand and volume with
my right. So I altered my Melodia theremin by switching the positioning of the
After a couple of weeks of enduring the agonizing tones of diligent theremin
practice, my dog, Oz, seemed to be getting a little weary of the torturous sounds!
Upon seeing me approach the theremin and turn it on, he would give me a worried,
pleading look as if to say, Not again with that thing! He'd then slink
off and hide under the bed. Now that my playing has gotten better he at least
stays in the room but does not look particularly pleased, and begins to
get concerned as I go up the scale to the high end of its range!
Curious neighbors started stopping by to find out the source of the ethereal tones floating out my windows, so I gave a couple of impromptu recitals, which were received with pleasure and amazement.
My Theremin Debut
After a month or so had passed I felt I was ready to go public with my new obsession.
The opportunity arrived on November 12, 1995, on the occasion of a big multi-choir
and organ concert at my church. I played two selections: Schuberts Ave
Maria (which Mrs. Clara Rockmore told me was one of her favorite selections
and was one of the first pieces she learned on the theremin more on her
later...); and Take My Hand, Precious Lord by Thomas A. Dorsey, a
20th-century composer of gospel music and spirituals. The theremin brought the
house down! A friend who was in attendance told me afterward that everyone was
on the edge of their seats, mouths gaping, hardly daring to take a breath for
fear of breaking the magical spell. I received a standing ovation for my efforts!
Since that time I have played publicly about 15 times (as of November 1996)
and have had my first professional (e.g. paying!) engagement. I have played twice
at a large church in Los Angeles where I was accompanied by one of their regular
organists, no less than Stan Kann, my friend who gave me his theremin!
Finding Clara Rockmore
Another wonderful bit of serendipity: I have become friends with a person whom many have proclaimed to be the greatest thereminist of them all, Clara Rockmore.
I have not yet had the opportunity to meet her in person, as we live on opposite coasts, literally me in California and her in New York. However, I have had the privilege on a number of occasions to talk on the phone with her, and have had some most pleasant conversations.
If any of my readers have never heard her play the theremin you have missed out on some beautiful and virtuoso playing. A compact-disc of her music, The Art of the Theremin is available from Delos Records. Look for it in your favorite music store or ask them to order it. Its wonderful.
Mrs. Rockmore is a delightful and charming lady, and seems pleased that her
instrument is enjoying such a renaissance. She has been very encouraging in prompting
me to continue my pursuit of the instrument. She wants, and has always wanted,
that the theremin would be accepted as a serious musical instrument,
and not just a toy for making spooky noises, as she so succinctly
expresses her opinion. I agree with her, and it is in that vein that I have taken
up study of the instrument. It has such a wonderful, mysterious, tone quality
and it is marvelous for playing classical music.
(Update: On May 10, 1998, Clara Rockmore passed away at 9:30 a.m. She will
Zen and the Art of Theremin Playing
I have met quite a few others who have become enchanted by the theremins
siren call. One such person made an interesting observation: He said that, without
exception, everyone he knows who has become interested in the theremin has done
so in the same way right back to our patron saints, Clara Rockmore
and Robert Moog. It seems as if the theremin just falls out of the sky and selectively
lands into various peoples' paths. When it does, it nearly always seems to be
either an IMMEDIATE obsession or general lack of interest.
The former certainly was the truth in my case. I mean, since finding the theremin or since it found me, as the case may be my life has taken a 90-degree turn onto a new road that I had absolutely no idea even existed, much less that it would become one of the main boulevards for me to make what apparently is just the beginning of a wonderful musical and spiritual journey, a magical and precious surprise that has been sent to me from the ethers!
Thanks for letting me share my magical Theremin story with you. It would be nice to hear similar anecdotes from others into whose lives this mysterious little instrument has entered.
My Updates section of this story is getting longer and longer, as more and more developments are unfolding, so I decided to open a new page. Check out Theremin Updates for the latest scoops!