Theremin: Strings Without Strings

Just as some folks channel surf on television, I “group-post search” on my computer and/or iPad. What I mean by that is this: After joining a number of very meaningful (to me) groups on Facebook, — such as “Thriving Christian Artists,” “League of Texas Writers,” “Texas Wendish Society,” etc., — I “surf” through these every day to see what new suggestions, videos, and words of wisdom they have to offer. Last night the Wendish Society group live-streamed a concert given by the Apollo Chamber Players, in performance at the University of Houston at Clear Lake.

            The Texas Wendish Society’s interest in the performance was due to the group’s guest musician, Carolina Eyck, a Wend (Sorb) from Germany who played the “theremin.” The theremin is an electronic instrument that was invented in the 1920’s by the Russian inventor, Leon Theremin (for whom the device was named), and it is known in America mainly for its use by the Beach Boys in 1966, the Rolling Stones in 1967, and other groups, including the Led Zeppelin. Before watching last night’s live-streamed performance, I had never heard of it before.

            As I watched and listened, it sounded to me like the sound of a large stringed instrument being played with a bow, but as I watched Carolina, I saw that she moved her hands somewhat as though playing a harp, but only in pantomime! She touched no strings, held no bow, no instrument was visible; she strummed the air with her hands. Weird! So I quickly googled “theremin,” and discovered what this mysterious “thing” was that my fellow Wend/Sorb was playing.

            The theremin is an electronic instrument controlled without physical contact by the musician. The electronic device emits frequency and amplitude, which are controlled by the hands of the musician, using one hand for frequency and the other hand for volume. Carolina Eyck said in an interview she has heard electronic music since she was a baby, backstage listening to her parents’ band. She fell in love with the theremin which she said involved a performer making music in the air by controlling two electronic fields with his/her hand. She began playing the theremin when she was seven years old.

            No instrument has ever fascinated me more than this one. Since my wife plays the autoharp, I am familiar with, and love the sounds, it makes by the musician strumming or plucking the strings. And as a fan of British Romantic poetry, I am very familiar with the mythical instrument, called an “aeolian harp,” which poets described as a stringed instrument, its strings so sensitive, the wind blowing across them plays heavenly music. They were said to have been mounted in trees, — sounds a little bit like wind chimes, except there is no hitting together of metal or glass objects, just the wind strumming and bowing the strings. That’s the closest thing to a theremin I had ever heard of.

            Carolina Eyck was accompanied by the Apollo Chamber Players who played on traditional stringed instruments with real strings they strummed, bowed or plucked. But the musical sounds produced by her instrument were so hauntingly ethereal, it was a mesmerizing experience for the audience. It made me think of the haunting beauty of Lusatia in Germany and the Spree River, as well as the mysterious fairytales and folk lore of the Wendish (Sorbian) people.

            I’m not suggesting that the music of the theremin is Wendish music, because the Wends were famous for their music long before the theremin was invented (though it was invented by a Slav). The early Wends played a type of violin which predated modern violins and they also had bagpipes, very similar to those in Scotland. In later years, they added brass instruments.

            Many musicians believe that Carolina Eyck is the greatest theremin player in the world today. While there aren’t huge numbers of people playing the instrument, it does not seem easy to play, and she is awesome. If you have a chance to see her perform, or watch her on video, I recommend you do so.

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, has recently published a book, It Must Be the Noodles, on sale at amazon.com.

Happy Heart Day To All Of You

            Recently an Associated Press Release about “Sweethearts” caught my attention and caused me to reminisce about celebrating Valentine’s Day in the days of my childhood. According to the AP release, Necco, which had been making the little captioned candy hearts called “Sweethearts” since 1886 (my childhood doesn’t go quite that far back), filed for bankruptcy protection and went out of business last July; consequently, it was announced there would be no Necco candy hearts for sale this Valentine’s. Although Spangler Candy Company bought out Necco, Spangler observed that they would not have Sweethearts on the shelves again until 2020.

            There are a couple other candy companies, including Brach’s, that have been making candy hearts which seem similar to Necco’s but aren’t the ones we loved as kids, and of course those were on the shelves this week.

            Thinking about the candy hearts and Valentines we bought and exchanged at Dime Box Rural School and the demise of Sweethearts got me to reminiscing about why we bought and made heart-shaped objects on Valentine’s Day in the first place. Why not give stars or diamond-shapes? This heart symbol developed above and beyond the many legends of the several Saint Valentines history and legend record.

            The Book of the Heart by Eric Jager explores the symbolism of the heart and its relationship to love, both romantic and altruistic. The shape of a heart as we know it today became a symbol of love during the Medieval Era, when it was believed that the human heart was literally the center of our emotions, love, of course being only one of the emotions. The actual hearts of birds and some other animals look more like a Valentine heart than the human heart does. Since it was against the law to dissect a human being in the Middle Ages, people knew only what animal hearts looked like.

            Cupid, or Eros, was the Greek god of love, and so some of the earliest Medieval Valentines depicted Cupid throwing arrows, roses, and hearts at lovers. Romantic love became the focus of Valentine’s Day celebrations at first, in spite of the fact the Saints who were named “Valentine” embodied agape, or Christian, love.

            When we exchanged Valentines in Elementary School, we exchanged them with all our friends, boys and girls. We used to draw and color our own Valentines in the third and fourth grades, and in our silliness, we would write verses on them like, “Roses are red, violets are blue, if I had a brick, I’d throw it at you.” By the time we started feeling “romantic” about the opposite sex, we were considered too old to exchange Valentines in school.

            Today, we send Valentines to folks we really care about, from grandparents to parents to teachers to best friends, no longer considering them messages of just romantic love, but all kinds of love that touch our lives. And out of this has grown the use of many, many expressions we hardly even think about when we say them. We describe a neighbor as “warm-hearted,” a friend as “kind-hearted,” a bully as “mean-hearted,” someone who is extremely aloof as “cold-hearted,’ a coward as “weak-hearted,” etc.

            I found myself saying of someone the other day, “She has a really good heart.” I remember as a college student, we had excessively hard professors whom we described as “having hearts of stone.” I’ve heard people say things like, “She’s as dumb as they come, but she has a warm heart.” The heart is one of the most important symbols in our life.

            A most touching use of this symbol happened recently, and it is so moving I think it’s worth sharing. We have a member of our church who is deaf, a young boy who has been a member since I baptized him as a baby. My wife has been his Sunday School teacher for a long time. This past Sunday, he was communicating with a deaf interpreter visiting our church, and he signed to her that his Sunday School teacher (my wife) had a “happy heart.” We thought it was one of the best compliments she had ever been paid.

            Happy Heart Day to all of you!

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, has recently published a book, It Must Be the Noodles, on sale at amazon.com

What Do I Want To Be When I Grow Up?

            This time of year, high school seniors begin to realize they are on the downhill slope of their senior year, — actually of their high school education. Some are already taking senior pictures, and at least one area school has just had their “Seniors Serve Night.” It’s an exciting, and, even, fun time, except for a nagging feeling they must study for SAT-type tests and look at potential colleges and plan entrance strategies, and maybe even decide on what to major in.

            My advice to my daughters when they became seniors was not to let the Big Change ahead spoil the fun of their senior year. Do both, — plan and have fun.

            When I look back at my own life, and think about my plans after high school graduation, I shudder, because I had no idea of “what I wanted to be when I grew up.” Ideas came, and ideas went. Plans came and plans went. Lots of them.

            Having attended Dime Box Rural School through the Ninth Grade, I finished high school at Giddings High when we moved to the “big city.” Both sets of my grandparents were small cotton farmers in Dime Box, and, because I helped them chop and pick cotton, I knew how hard you had to work when farming was your vocation, and I ruled out farming as a career choice early on. Yet, because I loved country life and the freedom of farm life, tractors and barns and great cooking that only farmers’ wives can do, I felt tinges of maybe I should consider such a life.

            My father worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad, and, even as a child I realized he worked as hard, or harder, than most farmers. Ruled out working on the railroad as a career right off the bat!

            My parents hoped my brother and I could go to college, if somehow we could carry it off financially, but I was unsure about that choice. I used to watch an old “shoe cobbler,” as we called him, in his shoe repair shop in Old Dime Box, put new soles and heels on shoes and work with all kinds of interesting leathers, and I rather liked the idea of someday having my own shoe shop. Indoors all day, never having to work in the blazing sun! And I loved the smell of freshly cut leather! Certainly beat the smell of cow manure and pig pens!

            My mother’s cousin was the Superintendent of Dime Box Rural School, and I thought I might like his job a lot, because all I ever saw him do each day was to come out on the wooden porch of his office and hit a large iron triangle with a hammer, signaling the end of each class period. But decided that would get boring after a while.

            The Giddings News was my favorite place in Giddings, and, when I was a high school junior or senior, I used to stand outside the large front window and watch the owner/editor run those huge antique printing presses, with newspapers flipping out fully printed. Eventually, I got brave enough to go inside, and I liked everything about the place, from Underwood typewriters clacking away to the louder clacking of the presses, and the newsroom smell, — I guess it was the smell of printer’s ink. As Feature Editor of the high school newspaper, I decided the newspaper business was the career for me!

            Of course, college and career ideas and plans changed by the month. My mother, being an incredibly gifted musician herself, wanted me to become a Band Director, so, in spite of zero musical talent, I gave that a great deal of thought. My maternal grandfather, an Elder in the church, hoped I would become a Lutheran pastor, and I entertained that idea until I found out how many years of college and seminary were required and how much that would cost.

            One of my great loves was drawing cartoons, using newspaper comic strips and comic books as my models. Still wanting to be a cartoonist my junior year in high school, I became Art Editor of the high school newspaper, and had to draw and gouge cartoons out of linoleum blocks.

            Of the two things I did for the newspaper, I found writing feature stories more personally satisfying than cartooning. In all the back and forth wishy-washiness of my career plans, I always came back to writing.

            So, I’m of the belief God gave each of us talents and abilities, and He presents ways for us to discover them, — and ultimately to zero in on the ones to be used in a lifetime career. A good reason to relax and enjoy your senior year.

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, has recently published a book, It Must Be the Noodles, on sale at amazon.com

Time To Look At Seed And Bulb Catalogs And Plan A Garden

            As we move into February, even with more cold weather in the forecast, many folks in rural Texas start looking at seed catalogs, bulb catalogs, and garden supply advertisements. Having been reared by parents who loved and poured over seed catalogs, I still feel a twinge of nostalgia every time I see a seed catalog or a Farmers’ Almanac.

            Old timers, like my parents, had many superstitions about when to plant, along with strong “only way” opinions. To them, two Presidents’ birthdays were time to plant certain seeds or bulbs, George Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s, both in February. These were “must plant” days, and you planted those white (Irish) potatoes on Washington’s birthday even if there was sleet covering the ground. My maternal grandfather had great faith in the Old Farmers’ Almanac telling you what to plant when; next to the Bible, it was his favorite book.

            In those days after the Great Depression, nobody had any money, and especially if you lived in small, rural towns like Dime Box. However, the advantage we had over city folks is that even with empty pocket books, we had lots to eat, — we grew the fruit, nuts and vegetables and raised the meat and dairy. One of the fondest memories I have of growing up is having an abundance of delicious food to eat, almost none of it store-bought.

            What we ate is what we grew, and by “we,” I mean our extended family which included aunts and uncles, grandparents, and older cousins. For example, my grandparents had wild peach trees which bore much fruit, so that’s where we got our peaches. My parents had fig trees, so the rest of the family would get their figs from us. My family thought that eating pears was tantamount to taking laxatives, so no one bothered to have pear trees. However, our neighbors had pear trees and kept us supplied with what we didn’t want. Blackberries and mustang grapes grew wild in the wooded areas and were plentiful in season. Most aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc., had a cow and chickens, so there was always an over-abundance of eggs, milk, cheese, and butter. The unpolluted creeks around Dime Box were teeming with fish, and I don’t remember my parents ever buying fish in my life.

            One of my uncles raised sweet potatoes on a couple of acres of sandy land, which the old-timers said was the only kind of soil this root vegetable would grow in. My uncle’s huge yearly harvest of sweet potatoes made our family happy, because we all loved this root vegetable, and we even made “German potato salad” (which is normally made with white potatoes) out of it. We didn’t know in those years that the sweet potato (which belongs to the morning glory family) was healthier than the white potato (which belongs to the nightshade family), we just ate it because it tasted so good!  

            Although my parents planted their white seed potatoes on George Washington’s birthday, the earliest you can plant sweet potatoes in Texas is April, as they are very sensitive to frost and won’t germinate until the ground has warmth, — no planting sweet potatoes with sleet on the ground! But we left that up to my uncle who grew them.

            Some folks then and now referred/refer to “sweet potatoes” as “yams,” but the two are actually not the same. This confusion came about at some point in time when stores started referring to soft sweet potatoes as “yams” and hard sweet potatoes as “sweet potatoes.” In actuality, true “yams” and “sweet potatoes” differ in color, texture, and nutrition, the sweet potato being the more nutritious of the two. If you think you see a sweet potato whose inside is any color other than orange, it’s a yam. I used to think yams were albino sweet potatoes until I saw a purple one! They can be white, cream-colored, purple, brown, or even a yellowish-orange.

            The first day of Spring is March 20, 2019, so if February is here, March won’t be far behind; consequently, it’s time to start flipping through seed catalogs, sharpening your garden tools, and keeping an eye out for baskets of white seed potatoes in the country stores.

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, has recently published a book, It Must Be the Noodles, on sale at amazon.com