Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Almost A Theremin Christmas

How to explain the thought that arrived unbidden in my brain last night -- "I'd like to hear some Christmas Theremin music".

It's not like I'd just been listening to some Theremin music or had been pondering on the odd and weirdly hypnotic sounds of the strange device. The thought arrived in and of itself, fully formed, like a stranger who appears in front of you claiming to be an old friend.

And so there it was - not borne of some distant memory of Christmas Theremin music Past, or a contstant yearning deep within my flabby heart. Just a sudden craving for something which I did not even think existed. (NOTE: see the update at the end of this post for a most important addition.)

The Theremin, true, fascinates me and has since I learned of it way back in my childhood. Others have, like me, from time to time, expressed interest in ordering one of those kits where you build one. But I never have and no one I know owns one. I did once take piano lessons for some years and yet never moved past the playing (and poorly too, even after six years of ill-attended lessons) of "Silent Night". So while I love all kinds of music, playing an instrument or even singing a song isn't something I can do well or at all.

But a Theremin - there is no keyboard, no fret, no touching the device at all, no way to identify how to evoke a note or a sound in a particular key except for the player's ability to find it by hearing or remembering how a tune sounds or is played. It's sounds are made by memory and electrical fields created by your own body - the stuff of science fiction. A wealth of Theremin related information can be found here, if you know nothing of the instrument, made in the 1920s by a Russian physicist named Lev Theremin.

And so the search was on across the internets, starting, naturally, with YouTube. And I did discover a couple of examples of people trying to play a Christmas song on a Theremin - with terrible results. So I went Google Video and even to the vast collection of music on Odeo. The results were meager. (The curious can look here or here, though these attempts are just awful.)

And not only was there no, or just awful, Christmas Theremin music -- good music samples of the Theremin were not to be found in abundance.

However I did find two astonishing examples of exemplary Theremin musicianship. The first I will add here is from Japan - where else - and features 10 musicians playing a variation of the Theremin. It's called a Matryomin and is built to resemble a Russian nesting doll, or Matryoshka. The musicians play a segment from Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, in E Minor, Opus 95, "From The New World." Keep in mind as you watch how difficult it would be for 10 people to play this on key and in synch with each other.

Still, that did not whet my Theremin Desire. Played by a master, the music created is ethereal and beautiful. Luck was with my search as I found the following video of Lydia Kavina - the last student taught by Theremin himself, whose work was featured in the soundtrack of the movie "Ed Wood." Lydia, surrounded by the appropriate amount of billowing fog and mood lighting performs "Claire de Lune". No, it isn't a Christmas song - but it somehow quenched my thirst for .... whatever it was I was seeking. Enjoy.

UPDATE: As noted in the comments below, the ever-intrepid Cinemonkey was able to locate some honest-to-Pete Christmas Theremin music!! Kudos, Cinemonkey. Here are the links. A complete Christmas Theremin music CD is available here, which includes some samples. And a podcast from Theremin world from Sunday, December 17 devotes part of the broadcast to Theremin Christmas, which you can access here.


  1. Anonymous6:23 PM

    Lookee what I found!


    What an excellent idea, Joe!

  2. Anonymous9:54 PM

    There is, however, a Theremin rendition of Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy" on YouTube. Take that for what it's worth.

    I met a dude in Chicago who has one, and has it hooked up to many effects. There are some amazing sounds possible.

    I wouldn't mind having one, but I'd rather have what you sort of described above - something that truly used memory/musical thought as transcribed through electrical impulses - kind of like the Segway of musical instruments. I'd rock, I think.

    A Theremin, like any other physically controlled instrument, still takes finely tuned and disciplined muscle movements to be played well.

  3. Joe - Be sure and check out the Update on this post for the links Cinemonkey listed. And a Merry Christmas to you (and Cinemonkey too!!)

  4. I love you soooooooo much.

    I want to build a theremin.

    If I ever do, I will invite you over for a Chrostmas concert.

  5. Coooooool!
    All of this is cool!