Playing Theremin combines audio and physical expression in a very direct way

Dorit Chrysler has been dubbed a superior wizard of the theremin. An Austrian born, New York-based composer, producer and singer, Chrysler is the co-founder of the NY Theremin Society and founder of the first school for Theremin, KidCoolThereminSchool.

As much as the Theremin is a tool in Chrysler’s electronic instrument arsenal, she is also one of the most visible thereminists spreading the gospel of this mysterious sounding instrument, which is basically played by massaging thin air. Dorit Chrysler has, besides her many solo records, collaborated with artists such as Anders Trentemoeller, Tocotronic, The The, the San Francisco Symphonie Orchestra and Cluster. She has performed worldwide in a variety of places like Australia, Japan, South Korea, Europe and Brazil.

The Original inspiration to start playing the theremin came when Dorit Chrysler’s musical adventure was already in full swing. As she explains: «From the age of seven, I was singing at the local opera house, being exposed to the repertoire of Mozart, Bizet, Alban Berg and Prokofiev. As a teenager I played in a New Wave Band and, after studying systematic comparing musicology in Vienna, I moved to New York, where I started an experimental rock band, playing guitar. When I first saw the theremin at a friend’s house in NY, its sonic capacity and history were fascinating to me, as was its unique interface. I was affected instantly and dove into attempting to master the instrument, it proved to be the ultimate challenge.»

Dorit Chrysler: «To see Lev Termen explain the Theremin and play it with such lyrical technique – it gets me every time!»

 

The body as the interface

As if starting the NY Theremin Society was not enough, Dorit also founded the KidCoolThereminSchool where she’s deeply engaged in teaching young children, teenagers and adults the fundamentals of this, the ultimate «Air Instrument». With all kinds of controllers, software tools, hardware myths and iPhone apps available, what does the Theremin – an instrument almost a century old – provide that these things. «Unlike the other devices you mentioned, the body of the player acts as the interface of motion to sound – the player is instrument and capacitor in the electromagnetic field the body provides – this physicality makes the experience of sound production more primal in an age of automation where we use our bodies less. Playing a theremin combines audio and physical expression in a very direct way – this is especially appealing to children, their familiarity with iPads and other gadgets can also be applied with an added dose of imaginative mystery since nothing is touched.»

Developing and mastering a great technique on the theremin takes a lot of time. On the other hand, the interface is very simple. There seems to be a two-sidedness to this.

«The Theremin is not a simple instrument. Once can produce sounds on most instruments without being able to play them – but to explore the full sonic potential takes time. As there is no visual reference and high sensitivity to slightest movement in pitch response, it takes time to master a theremin. This does not exclude exploring more abstract and instrumental voicing. The advantage is that there are no strictly defined techniques for achieving the best results, leaving it to the player to achieve their own goal.»

Dorit Chrysler: «The day the Earth stood still – a fine score by Bernhard Herrman, he is one of my favorite film composers.»

 

Physical expression

As Dorit plays other instruments and uses Ableton Live as well, one can wonder what interaction with the theremin adds that other instruments and the computer don’t?

«Most intriguing for me is a theremin’s dynamic range – so expressive and physical – nothing compares this way of producing sound. It feels like an extension of one’s inner voice – computer and analog gear serving to support this primal phenomenon.»

«The experience of playing an instrument where you don’t even touch it, as compared to one where you do, somehow feels more personal and intuitive, maybe comparable to a voice, a very natural part wishing yourself», she explains.

«It can feel more abstract and scary to not physically touch something in a live situation. I do sometimes miss clutching a guitar, its physicality adds another note of gravity – whereas the theremin always taps into what I like to call the «Houdini Effect» – it’s a curse and a blessing.»

Dorit Chrysler: «Jerry Lewis puts focus on the gestural aspect a theremin has, in a very naturally and funny way.»

 

Weiteres zum Thema

Ein Beitrag von Dorit Chrysler, basierend auf: Tickling Ghosts – Playing the Theremin. Interview mit Dorit Chrysler, Thereminspielerin, Komponistin und Musikerin. Ausschnitt von «Push Turn Move» von Kim Bjorn – Interface Design in Electronic Music.