Hear and Theremin (1995) - from the Archives

Hear and Theremin

Dennis James scores films for the eerie Theremin
Michael S. Gant 1995

No air guitarist ever had it so good. Composer, organist and movie accompanist Dennis James approaches a wooden cabinet studded with dials, knobs and two antennae--one a loop, the other a rod. the weird machine looks like a cover story from Popular Mechanics circa 1930, or maybe the centerpiece for a "Wonders of the 21st Century" exhibit at the Chicago World's Fair.

His feet planted firmly apart, James "plays"--or maybe "conducts" is the right word--the strange object by carefully moving his hands within the electronic fields created by the antennae. A flourish in the vicinity of the vertical rod with the right hand increases the pitch; a pass of the left hand near the wire loop changes the volume.

Onscreen, the Martian sequence of the 1924 silent film Aelita, a Soviet science-fiction/socialist epic, reaches a crescendo as rebelling workers in Constructivist bee-head masks storm the throne room of their degenerate rulers. James' hands dart faster and faster, producing a unique, yet strangely familiar, rising arc of "whoo-whoo-whoo" sounds.

The curious instrument is a Theremin, known to the ears, if not the eyes, of many moviegoers. It first appeared on the soundtrack of a Hollywood film in 1945, when composer Miklos Rozsa used one to signal the mental distress of amnesia case Gregory Peck in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound.

The distinctively eerie Theremin quickly became a sonic staple for expressing psychic tremors, scientific experiments gone very bad and visits to distant planets.

Although Hollywood didn't discover the Theremin until the mid-'40s, the instrument had been part of the classical musical world for more than two decades. "It's one of those instruments," James explains, "that is mentioned in all musicology texts, because it's the first marketed electronic instrument."

A Russian physicist named Leon Theremin invented the instrument that bears his name in 1920. Following successful concert performances in the Soviet Union, Theremin toured Europe and the U.S., and in 1929, RCA began to manufacture and sell Theremins to the public.

The instrument attracted the attention of several composers, most notably Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu, but it never lived up to its creator's dream that here at last was an instrument that anyone with "a sense of music within you" could play. "Ether wave music," Theremin told interviewers in the '20s, "is created with simplicity and a directness matched only by singing."

"It's the hardest instrument to play invented by man," laughs James. "You have to find your pitches in the air. And it's unstable, so within ten minutes, the pitches move around while you're playing it. If you don't have perfect pitch, you're out of luck."

Theremin went on to experiment with other electronic instruments, including something called the "terpsitone dance platform" (a sort of full-body multi-Theremin), an electronic timpani and a pattern generator. Eventually, through the efforts of Bob Moog, who started out selling Theremin kits in the 1950s, Leon Theremin's invention metamorphosed into the Moog synthesizer.

James, who collects and restores unusual instruments, had always wanted to see and play a Theremin. He got his wish in 1990.

"I was at a party in Columbus, Ohio," he recalls, "and some people told me about this man who used to give a musical lecture with his Theremin. I called him up, and he invited me over. We went down into the basement, and he had this homemade, home-brewed Theremin.

"It had a pie pan for one of the antennas, a bent coat hanger for the other, and blinking Christmas tree lights all over it." It turned out that the man, who preferred tinkering to restoration, owned an original RCA model stashed behind the water heater that he was glad to sell to James.

"Now Bob Moog is building me a custom Theremin," says James, who has become enamored with the possibilities of hands-off musicianship. "It will have lots of improvements, including MIDI language, so that I can talk to other electronic instruments. I'm starting to play the concerto repertoire. Fourteen concertos written for the Theremin have turned up."

The Theremin enters film history when psychiatrist Ingrid Bergman innocently presses a pattern into a white tablecloth with the tines of her fork. The parallel lines set off a mental storm within Gregory Peck. What later became a cliche of science-fiction soundtracks is used with great subtlety in Rozsa's Oscar-winning score for Spellbound.

"Rozsa was looking for an unusual sound," James says, "that would represent the mind problems that Gregory Peck was having in Spellbound, so he scored the thing for the Theremin. [It] was really effective and became part of the whole lexicon of science-fiction movies, ghost movies, aliens--from The Day the Earth Stood Still to Forbidden Planet."

For screenings of Spellbound, James has created the Spellbound Concerto, a six-minute work adapted from the soundtrack by Rozsa. "It's very much in the style of Rachmaninoff," James says, "a grand pianistic display piece with orchestra accompaniment."

Copyright 1995 Metro Publishing and Virtual Valley, Inc. (REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION)
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