Oscillating Fortunes (1998) - from the Archives

Oscillating Fortunes

The Theremin is one of music's more bizarre creations. STEWART LEE on its new popularity.
The Sunday Times (UK), Culture p.15
Stewart Lee 15th March 1998

This Wednesday, music fans and musicians will gather at the Lux club in London's Hoxton Square for an evening entitled Theremin Heaven. What could this be? In fact, you've already heard the Theremin without realising: humming sinisterly throughout 1950s sci-fi shockers The Day the Earth Stood Still or Forbidden Planet; oscillating wildly in the weird middle bit of the Beach Boys' Good Vibrations; and adding an indefinable retro-futurist glamour to Portishead's Dummy album with its distinctive whine.

Why is this pre-war proto-synthesiser suddenly so popular again? The writer Mark Sinker, who presents a Theremin history as part of Wednesday's programme, maintains it was Portishead who really "put the Theremin out in front, but because we're living in digital times there's a nostalgia for analogue sounds". The Theremin uniquely combines electronic sound with the human, random element that's lacking from contemporary, computerised electronica. Way back in 1918, Leon Theremin, a Russian physics and astronomy graduate of St Petersburg University, set up two oscillators in opposition. By flapping his hands around in the field between them, he could alter the volume and pitch of the eerie, ghostly hum produced, without actually touching the instrument.

After touring his invention around Europe, Theremin moved to New York in 1927, where he experimented with orchestral applications and married Lavinia Williams, of the First American Negro Ballet, who played a scaled-up Theremin by dancing around it. In 1938, Soviet agents dispatched Theremin to Siberia on suspicion of spying, from whence he was pressed into research by the KGB, who were perhaps planning to render western acoustic music obsolete. Eventually returning to America in 1990, Theremin was reunited with his musical protege, Clara Rockmore, before his death in 1993 at the age of 97.

These days the Theremin makes appearances with all manner of avant-rock acts - Stereolab, Quickspace, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Sonic Boom's EAR project, usually as a simple drone. The Theremin manufacturer Tony Bassett, a Father Christmas figure whose Theremin demonstrations have as much humiliating audience participation as a good children's magic act, even made one for the appalling south London heavy metal band Skunk Anansie.

One Theremin enthusiast who remains true to Theremin's vision of the instrument as a vehicle for melody as well as mood is Andy MacKay, an actor who has been demonstrating the Theremin at the Science Museum since 1994, and now enjoys a bizarre side-career as a Leon Theremin impersonator at cabarets and trade fairs. Clad in evening dress, and lecturing in a clipped Russian accent, MacKay's repertoire is not so very different from Clara Rockmore's, which brought hours of ironic pleasure to lovers of musical esoterica. "I start with a wartime medley," he explains, "We'll Meet Again, It's a Long Way to Tipperary, that sort of thing, and then move through the national anthems of the world. Then I do a sort of patriotic medley, Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory, then some Beatles, Elgar, Beethoven and Mozart, some tunes from South Pacific, a kind of atonal improvisation based around Daisy Daisy, and a Lloyd Webber medley. I don't know if Theremin would have approved of that."

Suspicious of Theremin populism, MacKay praises Theremins made by one Tony Henk. Unlike Bassett's commercial propositions, each Henk model is a painstaking attempt to fine-tune the original design. Indeed, despite the early synthesiser's debt to the instrument - Moog inventor Robert Moog was once a Theremin salesman - it is something of a dead branch of the musical evolutionary tree. But Walter Fabeck, who is performing and taking questions at Wednesday's event, is working on an instrument that combines the Theremin's fluidity with modern technology,

"The Chromasone is still a work in progress," explains Fabeck, who has already used a prototype for theatrical and cinematic ventures. "Like the Theremin, it employs hand gestures in free space, but to access digitally stored sound sources and then transform and manipulate them in performance as appropriate." To play the Chromasone Fabeck wears "data gloves", which trigger eight independent sound sources when each finger is bent. By moving the hands in three dimensions around a calibrated Plexiglas marker, Fabeck alters pitch, volume and timbre with a subtlety and range unrivalled by any conventional keyboard, "taking each note on its own individual journey". Though he acknowledges this phrase can't do justice either to his ambition or his invention's potential, one senses that Leon Theremin, at least, would have understood.

* GREAT THEREMIN MOMENTS Forbidden Planet Soundtrack (1956): The sound of a Theremin trio

The Beach Boys, Good Vibrations (1966): Realistically this should have been titled Good Oscillations.

Led Zeppelin, Whole Lotta Love (1969): A Theremin is the only thing of a noticeably higher pitch than Robert Plant's voice in this, the definitive 1970s Top of the Pops theme.

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Extra Width (1993): Spencer enlivened these deconstructed rockabilly tunes with bursts of a fuzzed-up Theremin, which regularly gave him electric shocks on stage.

Ed Wood soundtrack (1994): The soundtrack to Tim Burton's tribute to the useless sci-fi director features Russian Theremin virtuoso Lydia Kavina, the inventor's great-niece.

Portishead, Dummy (1994): Breakthrough 1990s Theremin moment, though Leon Theremin impersonator Andy MacKay suggests it is actually an analogue synth, and the fact that the sleeve credits a Thereman is a clue to the cognoscenti. Still, who cares, really?

Crapston Villas soundtrack (1995): The Theremin warbled throughout Spitting Image's scatalogical animated soap, courtesy of Andy MacKay.