Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Theremins: Making music with the wave of a hand

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Art Harrison plays his theremin at the Kensington Row Bookshop on Friday. The instrument, invented in 1920 by Russian scientist Leon Theremin, is played without being touched.
It takes a lot of practice to play an instrument without ever touching it.

But that’s how Rockville resident Arthur Harrison, 54, plays his. Harrison bends notes and crescendos with a simple wave of his hands with the theremin.

A theremin is an electronic instrument with two antennae that produce different notes depending on where the player’s hands move. The instrument makes a spacey-sounding warble that most people have heard, even if they may not realize it.

The distinct warble has a place in popular culture, and Harrison said people have heard the instrument before, or at least a variation of a theremin.

The Beach Boys used a theremin-like instrument to record the electronic warble heard in ‘‘Good Vibrations.”

The theremin was also used in classic science fiction films to create the noise of flying saucers and ray guns.

‘‘Think of it as piano keys floating on an ocean,” Harrison said recently, standing outside the Kensington Row Bookshop on Kensington’s Antique Row, where he plays occasionally.

‘‘Wherever your body is, that moves the keys like a wave.”

The melody of Beatles songs and classic songs like ‘‘Que Sera Sera,” made famous by Doris Day, floated down Howard Avenue on Friday when Harrison’s hands floated back and forth over the two antennae.

Harrison has been building and playing theremins since the mid-1990s.

‘‘My roommate in college owned a theremin ... and being involved in electronics, I said I think I can improve on this,” Harrison said. ‘‘It took me about 20 years, but I got around to it.”

His custom-built theremin has flat antennae that look like plates, and resembles a disc jockey’s turntables more than typical theremins that have long, rod-like antennae pointing away from the instrument.

Theremin players move their hands to and from the two antennae to produce a melody.

One antenna controls the volume of the note, and the other controls the pitch. Because only one note can be produced at a time, the theremin cannot produce a chord like a piano, but rather a melody line like a guitar solo.

The notes can sound as smooth and round as a violin or more pinched and distorted with the four knobs that control the pitch and voice of the instrument.

‘‘It’s something that’s easy to learn, but difficult to master,” Harrison said. ‘‘I first became interested in theremins because I was curious about how they worked. It wasn’t until later that I really loved playing them.”

As the owner of Harrison Instruments, he designs and sells a variety of theremins in an effort to further refine the original 88-year-old design.

The ‘‘151” theremin costs about $1,300 because of the high-end circuitry and is the one that Harrison plays, but simpler theremins cost around $250 and the kits for do-it-your-self musicians and engineers cost around $50.

The instrument was first invented around 1920 by Leon Theremin, a Russian physicist and musician, according to Harrison.

Harrison used to play once a week at the Kensington Tea Room before the cafe was sold earlier this year. Once a month, or whenever the weather is nice, he plays in front of the Kensington Row Bookshop.

Kensington isn’t his only destination, he plays locally with a band called The Cassettes who are focused on making electronic, country, funky tunes, he said.

According to its Web site, The Cassettes have performed across the country and overseas and feature Harrison’s theremin skills.

‘‘The theremin really is affected by anything in its space,” said Stephen Guidry of Arlington, Va. He plays keyboards for The Cassettes and said playing the theremin requires a lot of concentration, because the sound and pitch can change depending on where the player’s body is.

‘‘You can cram the keyboard player in the corner, and he can play it on its side and it’ll sound the same,” he said. ‘‘But he’s great. We joke and say people come to see the theremin and stay for the music.”

Having the theremin melody lines float through the band’s songs is not only great for the sound, Guidry said, but great for a visual as well.

‘‘Music-wise it’s the equivalent of having someone whistling, always whistling along to your songs,” he said. ‘‘It’s annoying if someone’s whistling along the whole time, but it’s not if they’re good.”