“You can’t play the air with a hammer. You have to play with butterfly wings.”
Smaller than the nails on my little fingers and butterfly-light, I needed 330Ω and 470Ω resistors1 to finish the circuitry for the simplistic Raspberry Pi-based theremin I’d had my eye on for months.
That day, as I watched and listened to interviews with Clara Rockmore, I felt a deeper excitement for this instrument and its wailing arias like simultaneous crying over the future and the past. I also felt that my playing of the theremin would not rise above the atonal and the amateur. Rockmore’s words, embodied by her fluid hand motions, made me envision the four-room cottage turned Hammer Museum in Haines, Alaska, as the forbidden land of my joyous prior ramblings.
For a hammer or a mallet has been exactly where I’m most comfortable as a music-maker. I’ve always been an amateur percussionist, with few thoughts of advancement in skill and no outward evidence of it. It’s not necessarily a great sign to have to turn to etymology as a validating gesture, but I turn there now, as the amateur is in fact the lover of their craft. I also gesture to Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, extolling the one who “is not necessarily defined by a lesser knowledge, an imperfect technique…but rather by this: he is the one who does not exhibit, the one who does not make himself heard.”
Of course, in my case, imperfect technique also abounds. Still, I feel a quiet yet joyous legitimacy to my relationship to music-making as an enthusiastic companion to my fussier, more accurate work of listening to and writing about music. My amateurish sensibility has guided me to an enriched life of making and playing percussion instruments. Once they’re made, just striking them is itself a comfort. I also enjoy the freedom of the mouth to converse while playing, in spite of the brashness of the instrument making the notion of actual song outlandish. And really, it is just a love, a recurring release in the domain of physical contact. As John Mowitt asserts, “percussive sense-making is caught up in the way that skin contact produces a subject who at once makes sense of various patterns of contact and who is itself the locus of sense for such contacts.”
Once they’re made, just striking them is itself a comfort.
But the theremin is an instrument without contact. So will playing it evoke the physical sense-making I feel with percussion?2 It is an instrument typically best played by those experienced in strings, such as the prodigious violinist Rockmore, as the parts assigned to theremin in classical transposition are typically (though not always) string parts.3 And yet it looks percussive; Rockmore plays as though she is engaged in a precise word-perfect operation of two typewriters at different heights.
I watch her and imagine she is writing a dual narrative. The first controls the pitch. Performed by her right hand, it is the well-sung narrative of a generative musical future, lifting up the people, women in particular. The second is performed by her left hand. It is the unsaid narrative of a touchless and sterile future, where the theremin, and the age of electronic music it created, submerges us in the isolating conditions of capitalism and confounds our ear and our eyes through persuasive mimicry of the human voice and the warm wooden body of the cello. This left hand is controlling the volume and is always on the verge of performing a glissando into silence.
I. from gpiozero import DistanceSensor
A theremin operates on distance, and the tone produced is determined by the placement and movement of hands across the sensing range of the antennae. The instrument creates a tone based on input data from two antennae, one for pitch and one for volume. The signal goes through three oscillators, then a band-pass and low-pass filter, and finally an amplifier and speaker.
The plans I found to make a theremin using a Raspberry Pi were really for creating an instrument that employs only the basics: a motion sensor, the digital equivalent of analog oscillators and filters, and speakers. With just one sensor, this more limited version lacks built-in volume control. However, vast potential for modification and control arises through programming the Pi and then piping output from the program into Sonic Pi, an open-source live music coding environment developed by Sam Aaron.
The hobbyist building of theremins goes back to 1934, when plans were inserted in a German electronics magazine. Robert Moog, the force behind most electronic instruments today and the largest seller of theremins in the world, first built one in high school, and then later took time off from graduate school to fulfill orders on a kit he designed for theremin construction. Moog’s progression is a common one: he wanted to build a theremin perhaps more than he wanted to play one. Theremin performance and recording history is remarkably narrow, probably because it is more often an engineering project than a musical one.
Once my resistors came in and the circuitry and programming were complete, I began experimenting with playing. The vibrato required surprised my arm. After long hours craning over the computer, my hands felt stiff. Although they were supposed to flutter like butterfly wings, they exhausted like a lone candle before an industrial fan in a server farm. The faces of the kindly thereminists in the how-to play videos floated in my mind: you must keep your hand shaking to get a warmer tone. (And this well-earned warm tone on a theremin would be heard as a cold snap on a cello). This near constant spasmodic approach shows the distance between technique in building and making. To set up the circuitry for a Raspberry Pi theremin, let alone a more robust two-antennae version, requires a still hand. To play the theremin requires a near constant trembling.
[Author playing self-built theremin:]
II. from time import sleep
Sleep is waiting for a specified time. When I imported the function of sleep, I imported a function of waiting, where the waiting period determines the sustenance of the tone. Instead of sensing distance and continuously projecting the specified tone, the program will hold it for as long as the sleep() function dictates. If I specify sleep(1), it will hold the tone for one second before executing the next function, sender.send_message(channel, pitch), which Sonic Pi uses to play the tone. Like an analog theremin, rests and silence don’t come from the ceasing of labor but rather a different labor. You must play the rests on an analog theremin through a glissando by the volume hand, but to obtain the same result on a Raspberry Pi theremin requires additional code and necessary aesthetic trade-offs. Your sleep is not a rest but rather a prolongation of the playing.
Thus, Clara Rockmore’s turn to the theremin was not a rest, but a pivot to keep playing, to keep working. Born Clara Reisenberg in 1911, she was the child prodigy of a Jewish family and the youngest student to ever be admitted to the St. Petersburg Conservatory. After the revolution, the family was impoverished, and Rockmore’s formal education, musical and otherwise, was ended. Her adolescence was spent performing across the continent with her sister, pianist Nadia Reisenberg. Near the close of 1921, they immigrated to the United States, where Rockmore was able to pursue some formal training while continuing to work as a professional musician.
However, she suffered from persistent arm pain due to childhood malnutrition and poor bone development. Unable to maintain an intense touring schedule, Rockmore closed the lid on the violin, turned to the theremin, and thereby achieved an unprecedented degree of mastery and musicianship. With less than three lessons from the instrument’s inventor, she was able to innovate its playing and once again perform classical transpositions of works, such as Saint-Saën’s The Swan, Franck’s Sonata in A major, and Ravel’s Deux mélodies hébraïques.
Despite her prodigious playing at venues such as Carnegie Hall, and well-funded popularization efforts by RCA and Leon Theremin himself, the instrument did not gain traction after its original period of novelty and fell into relative obscurity. This lasted until the resurgent interest in electronic music of the 1990s. Toward the end of her life, before she died in 1998, Rockmore made an appearance on radio: itself a piece of technology that redefined how we relate to sound. Her performance is one of those hours that makes you love radio, interspersed with interviews that brim with humanity and kinship. In a segment replayed from 1979, Rockmore once again performs with her older sister Nadia, and they are both interviewed by Nadia’s son, Bob Sherman, the host of WXQR’s The Listening Room.
The two are joined by violinist Erick Friedman, marking the contrast between the violin and the intended usurper of its role, the theremin. The irony is not lost on Rockmore, the original virtuosic string player in the room, who warmly jibes, “Well, I’d prefer to play the Bach on four strings, and playing it on the air is not unlike a trapeze artist who has to make the jumps without knowing if there is a net underneath.”
The lack of net is most literally interpreted as the fact that nailing a note requires a precision far greater than a violin, which is itself no instrument for a D power chord. The length of Rockmore’s arm contains five octaves of tones spaced invisibly throughout the air, meaning that there are sixty points of notes across a distance barely longer than two feet. The most infamous description of the theremin’s timbre is music critic Harold Schoenberg’s characterization as that of “…a cello lost in a dense fog, crying because it does not know how to get home.” The theremin cannot be discussed without pondering the sound of lamentation. In Gershom Scholem’s “On Lamentations and Dirges,” he addresses the infinity of silence and asserts “there is no answer to lament, which is to say, there is only one: falling mute,” and that “the silent rhythm, the monotony, of lamentation is its only tangible quality, its only symbolic element: namely, symbol of the perishing in the revolution of mourning.”
The theremin cannot be discussed without pondering the sound of lamentation.
Silence is not rest, and it’s not sleep. Silence, when in the context of discussing voice, is often characterized as an absence or as an oppression, yet there are questions that arise when we locate across space the tone that is Scholem’s statement: “…it was language that suffered the fall into sin, not silence.”
III. echo=17, trigger=4
Silence is characterized as women’s only allotted role in music prior to electronic music in Sisters with Transistors, a documentary that premiered at SXSW last year to sparkling reviews for centering women’s pioneering contributions to early electronic music. Hearing the voices, music, and sonic explorations of Daphne Oram, Delia Derbyshire, Eliane Radigue, and others was powerful. With archival footage of her unparalleled musicianship, Clara Rockmore is included as the subject farthest back in history. Sisters with Transistors also addresses the ways her playing influenced the instrument, leading Leon Theremin (and, though unmentioned in the documentary, Robert Moog) to modify their instruments upon her specifications. Yet the questions triggered by the theremin and their echoes through subsequent electronic music went unanswered, and at times unasked.
IV. while True:
The theremin was a Soviet instrument, encouraged and approved by Lenin himself, and in 1928, The Daily Worker proclaimed one of the instrument’s first concerts in New York as “the greatest proletarian music event ever held in this country.” Over 25,000 workers attended the three-hour outdoor concert, which was orchestrated by The Daily Worker and Freiheit to open a rally by the American Communist Party (Glinsky 87-89). Freiheit’s editor Moissaye Olgin also performed in a subsidiary concert in a theremin quartet.
Along with its unimpeachable origins in leftist circles, the theremin’s feminist credentials have been guaranteed by the prominence of women as its advocates and popularizers. Since its invention, prominent players have mostly been women, including Dorit Chrysler and Suzanne Fiol who in the present day founded The NY Theremin Society with Carolina Eyck as another golden-handed exponent. As the first mass-produced electronic instrument and the harbinger of future electronic music to come, the theremin’s possibilities and weaknesses that hover in its field of play create an echoing wail that reaches all its electronic offspring.
Sisters with Transistors makes a distinction between music that uses women’s musicianship as opposed to women’s voices. In an interview, Suzanne Cianni, who created a vast oeuvre of electronic music for commercials, described the omnipresent assumption upon her entrance to the studio that she would be the singer for the commercial. Yet the theremin often sounds like a female voice performing an aria. Contemporary thereminist Herb Deutsch has said that “there [is] no higher compliment of his theremin playing than for someone to assume it was a human voice singing.”
This excellence through duplicity has been a long-term aim of audio technology throughout history. And these verisimilitudes align with capital. Before Clara Rockmore ever played the theremin, Leon Theremin and one of his financial backers negotiated a two-year option with RCA on exclusive patent rights for the Thereminvox, as it was then called, for $100,000: the equivalent of over $1.5 million today, along with royalties. Along with prodigious innovation and sales of audio technology, RCA is known for their brilliant marketing of Nipper, the spotted dog who “hears his master’s voice” and thus, due to the verisimilitude of RCA technology, thinks his master is really there.
To hear a false voice and think it real: It’s not the vision of the future or present we yearn for, though it is one that is already here.4 Following the highly publicized Lindbergh baby kidnapping, Leon Theremin created a nursery doll that would sense an intruder. During a lifetime of sensor-based inventions, he also developed weapon-detection technology used on inmates at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary as well as bugging, the use of hidden microphones, which he himself installed in Stalin’s apartment at the command of the infamous secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria.
To hear a false voice and think it real: It’s not the vision of the future or present we yearn for, though it is one that is already here.
These are old questions, but persistent ones. In Sisters with Transistors, Bebe and Louis Barron describe how they were not listed as composers on the film Forbidden Planet for their work on its electronic score because their union did not want the electronic sounds to be considered music and foresaw job losses for composers were electronic scores to become the norm.5 This fear is justified.
To offer just one example with multivalent resonance in the recent past of the 1950s, as well as the recent past’s imagining of a fantasy 15th century, the violinist Lara St. John critiqued the television series Game of Thrones for using a programmed electronic cello rather than hiring a cellist. Whether electronic music is for the worker is an interesting question. Its Soviet origins and relationship to the avant-garde suggest yes, and yet this recently turned centenarian remains an instrument of future visions both utopian and dystopian. In Electronic Sound’s fantastic issue on the subject last year, there is a flight of storytelling where a comic asserts that “[Leon] Theremin composes the soundtrack to outerspace.” The theremin’s resurgence has come alongside our renewed interest in space, as both seem to reflect a desire to avert our eyes from the anthropocene’s effect on our own planet. Theremin and space both suggest possibilities for women, reflected even in what we name our daughters. The Social Security Administration just released the names of the cohort born in 2020, and the names Luna, Aurora, Nova, and Stella are all recent newcomers to the top fifty. Maybe when we imagine a liberated future for girls and women, we feel more hopeful when we avoid thinking of Earth at all.
V. live_loop :listen do
When we listen to the theremin, we listen to a wailing voice and a shaking one. It is an instrument whose default is sound, not silence. It is capable of sounding both human and humane. Turn it on and, without even knowing how to play, you can craft a song of lamentation, dissonance, and alienation, and all without an eighth note rest. A small amount of practice is required for silence, and a tremendous amount to play a tonal melody. We must shake our hands to create a warmer tone and have a butterfly-like touch, yet we touch nothing. We create a dissonance between what we see and what we hear. Though we see the flapping of wings, we hear an imagined outer space, where music-building and music-playing are synonymous, and Earth can be seen but not touched.
- It took rather a while to realize that I didn’t have the right resistors originally. The orange-orange-brown-yellow and orange-orange-yellow-yellow striping looked rather similar at first glance, but I got it sorted out.
- For those curious of the theremin’s classification of theremin as percussion or other, Sachs of the Hornbostel-Sachs Classification system added the category “electrophone” in 1940 to describe the theremin and other instruments beginning to appear, following the lead of Fancis Galpin in 1937: https://www.isko.org/cyclo/hornbostel#4.3
- Perhaps most famously, the theremin takes the role of the human voice in Rachmaninoff’s Vocalize.
- The ability to synthesize and clone your own voice has itself become a product, as seen previously in the Lyrebird app, recently acquired by Descript.
- This fear is also echoed in The New York Sun’s reporting of the theremin as “a musical device which may eliminate radio, phonographs and all other musical instruments” (Albert Glinsky and Robert Moog, Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005). 73)