June 2003

Moog Music Etherwave Theremin

People tend to associate the theremin with macabre sound effects-when they think of it at all-because of how Hollywood film-score masters employed it to enhance the dark psychological subtext of movies like Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend and Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still. A distant cousin to the modern synthesizer, the theremin is the first true electronic instrument, and it has held a deep fascination for me as long as I can remember.

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Moog Music Etherwave Theremin

Dr. Robert Moog, whose innovative voltage-controlled synthesizer, the Minimoog Model D, helped revolutionized rock, classical and jazz-fusion, has been building theremins as a hobby since 1954. And for the past several years he has been producing both a professional Ethervox MIDI theremin, and an affordable, eminently playable commercial version, the Moog Music Etherwave theremin. It's retrofitted to mount on a standard microphone stand and comes with two fascinating VHS instructional tapes, Mastering the Theremin with Lydia Kavina and Clara Rockmore: The Greatest Theremin Virtuosa-at $449 list.

The original theremin was developed in 1919 by Lev Sergeyevich Termen (aka Leon Theremin), a Russian cellist-physicist-inventor who purportedly derived inspiration from listening to the weird intermodulation noises that occur when tuning between broadcast frequencies. The renowned Russian violinist Clara Rockmore was bewitched by the instrument's potential and urged the inventor to enlarge its pitch range to five octaves while offering greater control of volume and dynamics so one could play musical rests-and not just continuous glissandos.

Rockmore's poetic arias have inspired many a musician to master the theremin, and I was so bowled over by the modern jazz chamber music on keyboardist Rob Schwimmer's Theremin Noir (with pianist Uri Caine and violinist Mark Feldman, available at polygraphlounge.com), that I sought out Moog's Etherwave so that I too might learn how to navigate it-with an ear toward jazz improvisation. I wasn't disappointed.

While it's easy to jump right in on the theremin and make goofy sounds, if you want to "vocalize" à la Lester Young, in tune and tempo, it's a bitch. Essentially, there's an electromagnetic field in and around the performer, and you deploy your left hand adjacent to the curved antenna as a mute. Standing roughly at arm's length from the vertical antenna, you vary pitch by moving the right hand laterally in an arc from left-to-right, raising the pitch as you inch closer to the antenna. You must stand as still as a Sphinx, arms extended outward at the elbows while manipulating your hands, because the increments of pitch are so close together, and the electromagnetic field so sensitive, that any jitter will produce a pitch change-while rapid hand movements generate that trademark sci-fi vibrato-klaatu verata niktu.

"We have two oscillators, and when we bring our hands near the pitch antenna, we're changing the pitch of one a little bit-and that's changing the difference frequency," Dr. Moog explains. "Then we have a circuit that shapes it into a waveform that is rich in harmonics, and we can vary the property of that circuit with the brightness and waveform knobs on the front panel. Then the third oscillator is called, in the parlance of today's synthesizer technology, a voltage-controlled amplifier-varying the strength of the waveform we've created with the pitch oscillator."

Rob Schwimmer was nice enough to slide by to give me a quick tutorial. Straightaway he turned the treble all the way down on my amp, tuned the low note to an octave below middle C, then patiently attempted to discipline my hands: employing a gentle staccato plucking motion with the left hand while orienting my right hand pinky down, thumb and forefinger together-to hear the center of the note as a string player might-with subtle outward movement of the thumb and forefingers to alter pitch-and don't be afraid to shake that vibrato.

With Rob feeding me jazz turnarounds on the Korg Triton Studio 88, hoary show tunes downloaded from my subconscious like Michael Feinstein on mushrooms, proceeding more or less in a step-wise melodic manner as I navigated my first halting do-re-mi's. (Rob suggested I woodshed a bit before attempting to vocalize on the ascending sixths of Monk's "Misterioso.") As I grew more confident and began nailing pitches more or less dead on, I could feel the melodies well up inside me with a singing ethereal quality that had all the expressive embodiment of bowing a cello, blowing a trombone, pedaling a timpani, sliding on a pedal-steel guitar or contorting your own diaphragm, rearing back, putting some body English on it and belting out that note-store-me-weehhbb-err!

Or as Clara Rockmore put it, "Every movement you make is a perfect synchronization of sound and motion."

No home should be without one.

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