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.

Posted in Spitzen-Noodle.

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