The sound of Wooo-sic (2002) - from the Archives

The sound of Wooo-sic

'The only instrument you don't touch' makes an eerie sound
Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette Cultural Arts Writer 7th July 2002

Sitting in his Friendship apartment, surrounded by his extensive collection of tiki statues and oddball recordings from the 1920s through the '90s, local DJ Michael Devine attempted to describe the sound of the theremin, one of the world's most arcane musical instruments.

That box with the antenna is a theremin, an electronic instrument whose creepy sounds were often used in old horror movies. DJ Michael Devine, right, recently taught Natalie Sweet how to play it at Oakland's Club Laga, where he sometimes takes his theremin on Wednesday nights. (Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette)

So fond is Devine of "the only instrument you don't touch" that he's been taking his theremin to local clubs and art events recently, inviting people to try it. You'd expect him to know a scientific way of describing its electronic sound.

First he raised his shoulders to his ears, lifted his hands and wiggled his fingers as if casting a spell.

Then, in a high-pitched, trembling voice, he went "Woooo, woooo, wooooo!" and opened his eyes wide as if mocking some bad actor in a campy science-fiction flick.

Not exactly a precise explanation.

But because the theremin was used so often in cheap sci-fi movies (like "It Came From Outer Space") and old thrillers (like Hitchcock's "Spellbound"), it was appropriate for Devine to lapse into Bela Lugosi mode. You'd almost expect the instrument to look as zany as Devine does when describing it.

It doesn't. The theremin (pronounced "thair-a-min") is nothing but a box the size of a bread bin, housing circuitry that directs electric currents. A 2-foot-tall antenna sticks out from the top, a circular antenna juts out from the side, and a couple of knobs protrude from the front.

For more on Michael Devine, visit his Web site: For more on the theremin, visit or .

Pretty plain. But the sound -- similar to a record player needle scratchinga record -- is hard to ignore. Not only is it spooky, it can get annoying. Devine allows people to play the theremin for only 15 minutes if he's in a public space.

"I don't know if anyone can take an hour of wooo-woooo-wooo!" he says. "You really need to cleanse your palate after a while."

Curious spectators who attend Devine's "thereoke" sessions -- get it? karaoke? -- often ask him how to play the thing. He tells them to stand in front of it and hold their left hand just above the side antenna. The more they raise their hand, the louder the sound gets.

Then he has them put the tips of their thumb, index finger and middle finger together and bring them toward the top antenna. Move the fingers closer to the antenna and the pitch gets higher. Shake the fingers rapidly, as if throwing pinches of salt at it, and the sound vibrates like in those old movies.

It's a bit like trying to rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time. Coordination is essential, given the horizontal movement of the right hand and the vertical movement of the left.

Devine says some people master it immediately, though he's most impressed with the woman who played it with a beer bottle in her right hand.

The theremin works because the hand is an electrical conductor. When such a conductor approaches the electromagnetic fields generated around the theremin's antennas, it alters the frequency of the current that's being emitted, thereby producing various sounds.

Leon Theremin discovered that in 1919, when he invented the object that would later bear his name. He probably didn't play it with a beer bottle, though -- he was a serious Russian physicist who believed his invention would eventually replace the violin in orchestras.

It obviously didn't, although some early thereminists gained a bit of fame for their ability. In the 1920s, Leon Theremin came to the United States to promote his invention but in 1938 was required to return to the Soviet Union, where he reportedly was thrown in prison and forced to work for the KGB. He died in 1993.

"The father of electronic music? Most probably," the Web site says of him.

In addition to being used in films, the theremin was discovered by some pop and surf bands of the 1950s and '60s -- the kind of bands found in Devine's extensive record collection.

"I guess weird instruments gravitate toward me," said the 43-year-old Devine, who sports a pompadour that complements his interest in obscure and sometimes just plain bad pop from the mid-20th century. The theremin has also been played locally by musician Ben Opie and violinist Erin Hutter of the Deliberate Strangers.

Devine DJ's on Wednesday nights at the Upstage in Oakland, where he has begun bringing a theremin for public use, and starting this month he will DJ on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month at Kelly's bar in East Liberty. He also has a radio show of eclectic music on WRCT-FM (88.3) and has organized "there-oke" evenings at the Chart Room bar Downtown, where supporters of the urban action group Ground Zero congregate.

When asked how he earns money, he said he designs fake Styrofoam tombstones -- the ones found in party stores that say things like "Over the Hill" and "The Big 4-0."

Devine -- nickname: Zombo -- is also a member of the band Legion of the Incredibly Strange Superheroes. That may be why he likes playing the theme from the television show "Batman" when he invites people up to play the theremin.

"They get to be Ther-e-Man," he deadpanned.

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