Saluting a Century of the Wacky, Versatile First Electronic Instrument

by delarue

Now that live music – and movies, and sports, and museums, and galleries – in New York have been shut down by the coronavirus scare, what can a person do for entertainment? Spring is here: you could go for a good, long run…or listen to a creepy fifty-one track album of theremin music. Or do both at once – it’s on Bandcamp.

To be fair, the NY Theremin Society’s compilation album Theremin 100 isn’t always creepy. While Russian scientist Leon Theremin’s 1920 invention may be most readily recognized for its uncanny evocations of creaky doors in a million horror movies, there are thousands of artists from around the world who have mastered the granddaddy of all sci-fi instruments’ magical force field for both good and evil. A lot of them are on this record. And one of the best, Pamelia Stickney – who’s surprisingly not on it – had a scheduled gig on March 20 at the Owl, but like pretty much everything going on around town, it’s been cancelled.

The album’s first track, Christopher Payne’s Somnambulist is a loopy, swoopy, chromatic nocturne that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie: are those strings and bass real, or an expert theremin imitation? Other tracks in the same vein include Herb Deutsch’s Longing – one of many with just theremin and darkly neoromantic piano, and Ei and Kuli Schreiber’s surreal tunnel narrative Train Jumper, at the top of a substantial list.

Often the theremin will evoke a violin, as in Peg Ming’s Therexotica, a gentle, brisk bolero with retro 50s twinkle; About Aphrodite’s lustrous Membran Music; or where Gregoire Blanc adds just a hint of shudder over eerily glimmering piano in Waves – with a bridge that’s too gleefully grisly to give away.

Therminal C’s Sputnik Crash powerfully demonstrates the instrument’s vast range and little-used percussive potential, as does Thorwald Jorgenson’s epic seaside tableau Distant Shores. The theremin gets backward masked in Hekla’s Twin Peaks pop tune Indenderro, used for squiggles and ominous banks of sound in Aetherghul’s Fire in the Sky, and an imploring vocal analogue in Jeff Pagano’s The Ancient Sea.

Some of the acts here employ a theremin for laughs. The Radio Science Orchestra contribute Atom Age Girl, a wry space-surf theme; Everling throws in his droll, bloopy Playing Theremin Is My Madness. The joke is simpler yet subtler in Hyperbubble’s I’m Your Satellite, while Robert Meyer’s deadpan teutonic boudoir groove Taxi is pretty ridiculous. Matt Dallow’s circus rock theme Tailor Made Destination isn’t far behind.

A handful of these pieces are massively orchestrated, like the Nightterrors’ macabre, Alan Parsons Project-ish Megafauna. Others, including Dorit Chrysler’s atmospherically circling Murderballad and Elizabeth Brown’s desolate March 21, are more spare. Twenty-nine tracks in, an electric guitar finally appears in Veronik’s Anomala, which is sort of House of the Rising Sun with a theremin. Song number 38, by the Keystone, is a strangely drifting duet for lapsteel and theremin. The most atmospheric track here, Gabriel and Rachel Guma’s Balloons Tied Up in the Sky, evokes whalesong. The weirdest one, Aileen Adler’s Piezoelectric Dreaming, is a mashup of Balkan reggae and spaghetti western themes.

Much of the rest of this material is classically-tinged: Japan Theremin Oldschool’s take of Ave Maria; Tears of Sirens’ Under the Milky Way (an original, not the Church classic), and Lydia Kavina’s In Green, a pretty piano-and-theremin ballad that wouldn’t be out of place in the ELO catalog if that band had a theremin. Maurizio Mansueti does a great job getting his contraption to emulate bel canto singing in the moody Blindfolded, while there’s a real aria in Robert Schillinger’s Bury Me, Bury Me Wind. The compilers who put this thing together deserve enormous credit for the consistently high quality, vast scope and imagination of most everything here.