Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Theremin Killed the Radio Star

The first time I saw a theremin was at a science museum. Can't remember if it was in Boston, or San Francisco, or Chicago. You could play with it, but the sound was annoying, and a visit to a science museum, with its multitudes of attractions, wasn't the best place to focus long enough to coax any music out of it.

The first time I saw a theremin in live performance was at my office Christmas party (which features as a longstanding tradition, a talent show). Dan Bluestein sang "Witchta Lineman," accompanying himself on guitar and theremin (quite a feat, that)-- the theremin he had built himself. I seem to recall it involved a battery and two crescent wrenches, one of which he operated with his foot.

In 2005, at the Rogue Festival in Fresno, my stage manager Blake Jones informed me that he'd miss one of my shows, as his own Big Loud Pop Show he'd organized for the Festival would conflict. By the time I'd finished my show and got to the venue, it had long since started, and sold out, so I stood out on the sidewalk and listened through the door. A local Western Swing band, the They Can't Hardly Playboys, was ripping through "Hot Rod Lincoln," and after that, there was, unexpectedly, a samba, with an otherworldy tone taking the lead, sliding up and down the melody of Ary Barroso/S.K. Russell's "Brazil." I asked a couple of folks also outside the door: "What is that sound?"
"Pedal steel?" one suggested, and this didn't seem too farfetched, given the previous song.
Later, Blake confessed that indeed, it was a theremin, and that he himself had played it.

A year later San Francisco musician pc muñoz, who I went to high school with, would hire Blake to play theremin on his new recording project, and casually mentioned he was seeking a spoken word artist. Blake suggested a storyteller from Berkeley that he'd seen in Fresno recently, namely me... which is how I ended up on a CD with some of the East Bay's best jazz musicians.

This year I finally got to see Blake play the theremin live, as he covered "Harlem Nocturne," with his band, The Trike Shop.

Watching a theremin performance is fascinating, because the performer never touches the instrument. It's also not visually stimulating, because the slightest movement on the part of the performer produces a great variance in tone, so tackling an actual melody involves a limited range of movement.

So here from YouTube is a video introduction to the theremin by Jon Bernhardt, who not only tells what a theremin is, but tackles a pop hit from the 80s. And while this is wrong on so many levels (especially his jacket), I have to say, the novelty of the theremin fits the novelty of the song. Enjoy.

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