Composing for the Theremin: Some Practical Issues

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Author Eric Ross

In composing for any special instrument, there are several practical matters. What do you want to express? How, why, and in what form? The more precise your ideas, the easier it can be to implement them. Since music can take you into unexpected areas, a composer should be flexible enough to adapt, change, or even revamp plans at any stage, if necessary. One instrument that could really take your music into unexpected areas is the theremin.

One of the oldest electronic instruments, the theremin was invented in the early 1920s by Russian professor Léon Theremin (born Lev Sergeyevich Termen). Professor Theremin had always hoped that his new instrument would lead to truly new music, but throughout most of its history it was mostly used quite conservatively, often in violin and opera transcriptions or in popular musical tunes of the day. Clara Rockmore, the great early theremin virtuosa, felt that the theremin should be treated as a serious instrument, not as a fad or a gimmick. A handful of compositions featuring the theremin were created early on by a wide range of composers, among them Edgard Varèse, Bohuslav Martinu, Leon Schillinger, and Wallingford Riegger. But by the 1940s and ’50s, it was mostly used to conjure the bizarre in the soundtracks for numerous Hollywood mystery, horror, and science fiction movies, including Spellbound (scored by Miklós Rózsa) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (scored by Bernard Herrmann). It also found its way into rock music in the 1960s, adding otherworldly sounds to songs by Led Zeppelin and Spirit. (Contrary to popular belief, the Beach Boys’ hit “Good Vibrations” did not feature an actual theremin. Rather, its famous theremin-sounding riff was produced on a mechanical instrument developed for Paul Tanner by Bob Whitsell in 1958 which Whitsell called the Electro-Theremin.)

However, by the 1990s, digital technology, synthesizers, samplers and computer software allowed the theremin to be placed in context and perspective. Bob Moog began building quality theremins for a larger market. The theremin was “new” again and artists realized it could be used in new compositions. It’s a beautiful-sounding instrument with a distinctly ethereal quality and characteristic sliding tones. It’s played by motions of the player’s hands in the space surrounding the instrument, and is visually very striking. It can be ideally suited for composers of new music.

Before you start creating your own music for the instrument, I’d suggest doing some serious research into its history, development, and use in contemporary music. Your research can begin on the web, which has been a particularly active hub for theremin enthusiasts. For starters, here is some basic information about how the instrument works and how you can maximize its potential in your compositions.

A Little Bit of Science and Some Basic Techniques

To write for the theremin effectively one should know its strengths and weaknesses. The theremin is a monophonic instrument; which is to say, it can only produce one pitch at a time. It has about a five-and-a-half octave range. Its low range can sound like a cello or string bass, mid range to upper range can be vocal-like and the top end is brilliant and piercing. But with effects or MIDI you can extend both the range and timbre of the instrument.

Theremins work on the principle of heterodyning—that is, mixing the output of two radio frequency oscillators to produce a beat. When this frequency is over 50 Hz or so, an audio signal is produced which is then amplified. The theremin is played by changing the alternating magnetic fields that surround two antennae. The resultant waveform is variable. One hand controls pitch, the other volume.

The theremin is difficult to play well. There’s no keyboard or fret board for reference. Spatial perception is only part of it. One must have a good ear, since ear training certainly helps in hitting the intervals correctly. It’s important to be relaxed physically and concentrated mentally to hear the note before it is played. You’ll need to make the right adjustments instantaneously to hit the note cleanly in the center of the pitch. There are several different styles and finger work that can be used to do this. Some players concentrate on the right hand which produces pitch, but the left hand which controls the volume and attack is equally important. In a way, the right hand is the artisan and the left hand is the artist.

The dynamic range of the theremin, which is controlled by the left hand volume loop, is full and rich. Gradual volume swells as well as great sforzandos (sudden shifts in volumes) are relatively easy to achieve. With good left hand control, both legato and staccato are also possible on the theremin. Legato is theoretically infinite as there’s no need to redraw a bow or breathe. Sustained notes and melodies with long tones work particularly well and can be very beautiful. But to avoid a continuous glissando or portamento (glide) between notes, the player must accurately “stop” each note with the left hand, otherwise melodies will sound off pitch, “wobbly” “run-on” and amateurish. Fast skipping tones need to be articulated well, without gliding, which requires judicious hand coordination.

Trills are possible but difficult. Grace notes are somewhat easier. Familiar scales and modes and arpeggios can be played by a good performer. But wide leaps should be avoided, or carefully prepared if precise pitch and rhythm is desired, whereas unmeasured leaps, slides, or random rapid hand movements are easy and can be very effective in certain types of music.

Of course music emphasizing portamenti and glissandi is ideal for the theremin, as is microtonal music, since the theremin can play any pitch—not just a predetermined set of fixed pitches available to keyboards and fretted instruments—and can slide effortlessly between them, which is—in fact—one of the instrument’s characteristic sounds. Another characteristic sound of the instrument is a quivering, voice-like timbre—a vibrato created by the rapid back and forth movement of the right hand. Music utilizing these sonorities will immediately be identifiable as theremin music, but music which abuses them will immediately sound clich├ęd.

While vibrato is the soul of the theremin tone, a bad player uses vibrato, like a bad cook uses too much sauce. A good player uses vibrato with taste and discretion. Vibrato should be carefully measured. Too much spoils the music, too little can sound dry and lifeless. As a composer, be as specific as possible about speed, width and dynamics of vibrato.

Since the theremin can be loud or soft across its entire pitch range, the theremin can work extremely well with a wide variety of instrumental combinations. It can lay in well with a string ensemble or solo over it. Brass and wind instruments also blend and contrast well with the theremin. For the purposes of timbral contrast, the theremin is particularly good in duets with keyboards or guitars as well as in ensemble with such instruments. Percussion can also set up rhythms and textures for the monophonic theremin to play in. Combining the theremin with non-western instruments can yield interesting results, too. In addition, the theremin works well either as a soloist or as a member of a full orchestra.

When using a theremin in an orchestral context, one of my favorite vibrato techniques is “riding the sound.” Here, the theremin plays above the orchestral sound with a quiet high-pitched wavering tone, roughly following the pitch contours of the melody with the possibility of making comments and highlights. This gives a kind of doubling effect at the octave but not exactly. Another useful technique for the theremin is “call and response” type passages: Have one instrument state the melodic line and then have the theremin duplicate or imitate that instrument or come back with a different but related “answering” phrase or vice versa.

However, when writing for theremin in an ensemble with other instruments, I’d avoid exposed entrances for the theremin. Unaccompanied entrances and phrase endings can be a problem. It’s better to double the “exposed” spot. For example, if your phrase has an entrance on Bb, rather than have the theremin come in “fishing” for a Bb, better to double the note with another instrument if possible so the opening note is absolutely clear. Unless the player has a pitch preview or “perfect pitch”, that note will be hard to hit “out of the air.” Give an audio cue for pitch safety. Long solos should start and end with the orchestra clearly stating the beginning and ending tones. If you require certain complex melodic lines that demand tonal accuracy, you may be better off using a synthesizer with portamento, a D-beam ribbon controller, or even a high soprano or string choir.

While the theremin is comfortable in traditional settings and acoustic orchestrations, it is truly at home in an electronic environment. Here its wide and varied voice can be used to great effect. Electronic effects can greatly extend its range and tone. In the ’70s and ’80s, I used analog distortion, wah-wah pedal, tape delay, and spring reverb. Today I use digital effects or software effects such as digital distortions, delay, compression, reverb, chorus, harmonizers, looping, phase shifting, flanging, and ring modulation, among other techniques. There are tons of effects available. On the road, I use a light weight programmable digital guitar effects unit with my own custom designed patches. I prefer foot controls to keep hands free with a small mixer for effects loops. A theremin can also be used as a voltage controller or MIDI controller to change other parameters of the sound. While some players use the theremin only as a CV controller or MIDI to trigger synths or effects, only the Moog Ethervox has built in MIDI. Some thereminists have used guitar pitch to MIDI conversion boxes. But if this is an area you want to explore, be sure your receiving synth unit can accept glissando or portamento messages.

Acquiring a Theremin: Buy or Build?

Before the 1990s, there were few quality instruments available and fewer teachers to train students in the subtle art of theremin playing. Today that’s changed, but it takes talent, time, work, and direction to develop into a good player. There are some “natural” thereminists: people who have perfect pitch, accurate muscle control, and a good physical memory can play almost at once. But they are rare. Many players come to the theremin from other instruments, and good musicians generally can do well in time. If you plan to learn to play, a few years work, preferably with a teacher and daily practice, should get you to an acceptable level. However, after a valiant attempt, you might decide that you will only want to play the theremin in the confines of your own home in order to help you create music for it, and leave the public performance of the instrument to someone else. Nowadays there are more theremin players around than ever before and you can find them almost as easily as you would any other type of instrumentalist.

Of course, whether you plan to be the next great theremin virtuoso or just want to play around with the instrument to get some compositional ideas, you’ll need to get one. When buying, there are several factors to consider. What is your budget? What level of electronics experience do you have? Are you looking for a beginner model or a professional instrument? There are many good instruments available. It becomes a matter of cost and performance goals. Original vintage RCA theremins are rare, high maintenance instruments. If you’re lucky enough to find one, expect to pay around five figures for it, even if it’s not working. Moog Music offers a variety of instruments, including the MIDI Ethervox, Etherwave Pro, and Etherwave. The first two are quality professional instruments but out of production, as is the Gibson Maestro Theremin. But you may find something online. Price and condition varies greatly.

The Moog Etherwave is still in production, widely available, and sells for around $500. It’s a good entry level instrument, and with some modifications can be a good professional instrument. One advantage is that it’s had good distribution so you can find them in most places. Other pro models include the T-Vox, Wavefront Classic, and Kees Enklaar, among others.

Another option is to build a theremin or have one built for you. There are schematics available, cost is less, and even the electronics hobbyist will have a pretty easy time putting one together. If you’re considering a kit theremin, it’s important to have at least some previous experience building electronics from kits. If you can follow directions closely and you are comfortable with a soldering iron, you can build any kit out there. Kits are also a great way to save money. Even if you’re not familiar with soldering, you might be able to find a friend or family member to show or help you build the kit. Then again, if you’re not the home handyman type, you might ultimately be better off paying the additional money to buy a finished instrument.

Which Theremin is the Right One for You?

As difficult as the theremin is to play, some models are easier than others. Two key factors are linearity and range. Linearity refers to how uniformly the theremin responds as you move your hands around the antennae. Theremins with good linearity tend to be easier to play, as the distance in air between two consecutive notes is the same (or very similar) regardless of where you are along the musical scale. Theremins with poor linearity tend to be much more difficult to play because the distance between notes varies significantly moving from the low octaves to the upper octaves. For example, the highest octave (when playing closest to the pitch antenna) might be spread over only a few centimeters while lower octaves might cover many. Muscle memory plays a big part in finding the right note when playing a theremin, so the more variation in space between the notes, the more variations your muscles have to remember. Range refers to how many octaves you can play on the theremin. To be really useful as an instrumental resource, you want your theremin to have at least a 4-5 octave range. Higher end models offer as much as a 6-7 octave range. But one thing to remember is that the wider the range, the closer the notes are together in the control space, which can make the theremin more difficult to play in extreme cases.

Most theremins have some sort of audio jack that allows you to connect your theremin to an external amplifier. Some cheaper toy models may only include a single built-in speaker. In addition to audio output jacks, you will also find additional output options which vary from instrument to instrument; you should pay attention to these when deciding on which instrument is right for you:

Control Voltage (CV) – This feature allows you to connect and operate older analog synthesizers with your theremin, which can be very useful.

Headphone Jack – This is extremely helpful for practicing without connecting to an amplifier. It can also serve as a pitch-preview, so you can hear the sound in your ear and find the right note before the audience hears it through your amplifier.

Tuner Outputs – These allow you to connect an electronic tuner to the output signal of your theremin as another way to find the right note and stay on key during a performance.

Care and Feeding

Always protect and guard your instrument. Keep it upright, and never store it in a hot, dry, cold, or damp room. Theremins are temperamental. Treat them like you would a fine violin or guitar. Keep the power off until you play. A surge protector is a good idea, but theremins can handle a pretty wide swing of fluctuating current. Set it up on a secure tripod mike stand. Adjust the volume and tuning knobs. You want the tuning knob to be linear at about two feet from your body to the tips of your outstretched finger. Once you’re satisfied with your sound, mark your levels.

Etherwaves don’t require much electronic maintenance but sometimes it is necessary to retune the tuning “slugs.” This can be done at the factory. If you’re familiar with electronics or know someone who is, you can do it yourself at home. Be sure to have the schematics for your instrument. It’s a fairly easy adjustment, but over-turning the slugs can cause problems. Remember the instrument will react differently with the cover on or off.

Additionally, you’ll need two power cords (one as a backup), a power bar with an extension cord, a tripod mike stand with screw mount, and at least 4 patch cables minimum—2 short (3 feet) and 2 long (15-18 ft). You should have a padded bag or a hard shell case for your instruments and a bag for a tuner, a small wrench and a flashlight, flathead and Phillips screwdrivers, plus Gaffer’s tape.

When I travel, I pack two theremins (one as a backup) carefully in bubble wrap and put them in a padded shoulder bag. The theremin is fragile, and shakes, bumps, or vibrations can cause malfunctions. It’s a good idea to mark your instrument and parts with an ID tag. If you’re flying, take your theremin on board the plane with you. Arrive at the airport early, as security will likely require additional time to carefully screen the equipment. If questioned, explain that it is a musical instrument, like a guitar effects box, a wah-wah pedal, or fuzz box. I carry documentation about the theremin if more information is required. Any detailed explanation is usually not necessary, although they may swab you for explosive residue. Be polite and calm and generally there are no problems. Never put your theremin underneath the plane unless absolutely forced to. Bad things can happen to your instrument even in a “hard shell” case. If you’re touring in Europe or Asia, remember that voltages are different, and that you’ll need the right power cord and adaptor. If you have a Moog instrument, you’ll need a 220-volt power cord. Just buying an adaptor may not work, as it may cause the signal to be inverted. For all your other instruments and effects, be sure to bring converter adaptor plugs for each from the USA. You can perhaps buy them abroad, but they’re more expensive and more difficult to find. Adaptors should have round plugs and convert North American to European voltages.

The Theremin in Live Concert

Unless you’re running directly though the house PA system, you’ll also need an amplifier. Clara Rockmore used the classic diamond-shaped cabinet with a 15-inch speaker. These are no longer being manufactured commercially but could be custom built if required. A good bass amp or keyboard amp should suffice and will give you more range for the bottom end of the theremin than a guitar amp. The amp should have a couple of inputs and have a headphone out as well as speaker out jacks. The size of the venue determines what size amp you’ll need. A 15-watt amp is good for practice or small rooms, 40 watts for a medium sized room, and 100 watts or more for bigger auditoriums. It’s often best to run the theremin directly through the house PA with a monitor. Your monitor should be at the same level as the house sound with the theremin “up-front” in the mix. Always get the amp up off the ground. Put it on a stand, table, or solid chair. Your amp cab can be miked if you wish, but a direct signal is usually cleaner. If you have a small mixer, you can use that to control your volume. On-stage effects boxes and sub-mix should be sent to the front end.

Live situations with the theremin must be carefully considered. There are striking visual aspects to a live theremin performance, watching the player create music “out of the air” The audience will want to see the player’s hands. A good lighting plan can improve visibility.

You need to work closely with the sound technicians to balance the output of your theremin. A great performance can be ruined by bad sound reinforcement. Take the time necessary to adjust all parameters of the sound. Work with the sound technicians until you’re satisfied. Certain frequencies on the theremin may cause room resonance, sympathetic vibrations, and early reflections. The EQ on the mixer should be able to adjust. The theremin is no more difficult to balance from the mixer than any other electric instrument.

Find an area on stage to set up your instrument relatively isolated from other musicians, dancers, or actors. You’ll need about a six foot radius to form the “magic circle”, free of interference by others. People or equipment inside this radius will cause the theremin to sound. You should also be distant from other electronic fields—such as other theremins or radio signals—which can cause interference. If you have interference problems, try a few different placements. To make sure you can hear yourself, have a personal monitor or ear bud.

Recording the Theremin

When recording, I like to mix the output of the theremin, taking one output directly to the board, another out to my amplifier and with a microphone on the cabinet. Record both signals and you can later remix. This way you can get both a “dry” signal and your live or “wet” sound. You can use different effects loops on each channel. Take care to keep your levels within the meters. Since the dynamics can vary greatly, it may be good to use a compressor or limiter. The sound should be warm and full with a rich resonant bass. The middle should be like a singer in a small room and the top end range of sound from the theremin can be brilliant or evocative. Once you have a good signal on one track, it’s easy to overdub or multi-track several theremin parts to get a dense choral or contrapuntal effect.

How to Notate for the Theremin?

Contemporary theremin scores reveal a continuum of writing styles from traditional staff notation through graphic scores to aleatoric or abstract. Many are various types of “hybrid” scores that may display traditional elements or be unique to each individual score. The theremin is capable of a great many things that may defy traditional notation. The purpose of a good score is to convey as accurately as possible the composer’s intentions to the performer.

While Varèse and Rózsa both used traditional notation in their scores for theremin, Percy Grainger’s Free Music No.1 (1929) for four theremins is an example of a true graphic score. It is written on graph paper with four lines representing the instruments. The X-axis represents duration and the Y-axis is pitch. The score is not aleatoric; in fact, it’s actually quite specific. All four parts are about equal in difficulty. Its pitch range revolves around a minor ninth. It moves without interruptions from beginning to end, and it lasts for around four minutes. Another type of score is the “ex post facto” score written after an improvisation has been recorded, so that it can then be performed again or overdubbed later. In this case, timed events and other significant features are cued in the score.

A hybrid approach is ultimately the most successful. It allows you to be both specific and flexible when you need to be. If you play yourself, or have the time to work with a good performer, you can write to individual strengths. However, always remember that another player might find such a score difficult to understand or execute, so be as clear as possible to convey the essence of your musical idea.

My own scores for the theremin combine traditional notation with modern notational adaptations and written directions. If the players can improvise well, I leave space for them to be creative within the context of the piece. In these “directed improvisations,” I provide guidelines and allow the players room to express their own ideas to enhance the music.

In Passage for Theremin (Op.53), written in 2001, recorded on Music for Theremin CD (ER-106), pitch is notated but not duration.

EXAMPLE A

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Some twelve-tone rows comprising melodic material are indicated. The players are directed to use the row from Example A in its various forms and transpositions as thematic ideas in improvisational areas. Such direction helps to provide unity and variety.

In Ex. B, duration is indicated but pitch areas are only generally notated: low, mid, high.

EXAMPLE B

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Later in the score, there are also instructions to imitate sounds like a lawn mower, motorboat, a Geiger counter, a crying baby, a dramatic opera singer and her jealous lover and so on.

EXAMPLE C

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You should always include instructions and directions for your preferred electronic effects settings. For example, [A5] from Ex.C above is an effects pedal patch. But these may have to be considered optional, as not every player will have the same gear or rack.

In the opening measures of my composition Prefactory Act (Op.57) written in 2005, recorded on Boulevard D’Reconstructie CD (ER-107), the theremin duplicates the keyboard but with portamento between notes.

EXAMPLE D

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I composed my Overture for 14 Theremins (Op.47), recorded on Music for Theremin CD (ER-106), when I was the master teacher at the First International Theremin Festival in Maine in 1997. My students ranged from beginning to intermediate levels, and we rehearsed during the workshops and private lessons. There are some difficult solo parts for myself and some rather easy ensemble parts for the students. Each of the students also had their own 4-8 bar solo with the guidelines to play “something you’ve never heard before.” I wanted to make a piece that would sound good and everyone could play. The music is very quiet and restrained until near the end, when it fades into bird sounds produced by all the theremins in the extreme upper register for the last notes. The result was surprising and effective. Some played high twitters, some created mysterious calls, while others produced chirping noises.

Overture for 14 Theremins (Op.47) uses traditional type notation.

EXAMPLE E

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Overture for 14 Theremins (Op.47) also uses non-traditional type notation.

EXAMPLE F

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Bob Moog, who was there, helped to get all the theremins in good harmony. For the concert, I spread the players across an auditorium with about six feet between each one for good separation and definition. It’s a world record for the most theremins performing together since Professor Theremin’s “Monster Concerts” in the 1930s.

Whatever your style, with creativity, imagination, and some practical experience, the theremin can enrich your music.

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Eric Ross began playing the theremin in 1975. Since then, he has performed his compositions on guitar, keyboards, and theremin at Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, Newport, Montreux, Berlin and North Sea Jazz Festivals, Copenhagen New Music, and the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, as well as on radio, film, and TV. For over twenty five years he’s led his own ensemble that has featured jazz giants John Abercrombie, Larry Coryell, Andrew Cyrille, Oliver Lake, and Leroy Jenkins, as well as new music virtuosos Youseff Yancy, Lydia Kavina, and Robert Dick. Since 1976, with his wife, Mary Ross, he’s also presented multimedia performances with video, music, and computer art. His latest CD on his own label is Boulevard d’Reconstructie–Music for Theremin and Ensemble.