Theremin: Music from Thin Air

Theremin player Bobby Skinner is serious about his novel instrument

Theremin

image by Elsa Hahne

Content Tools

To hear Bobby Skinner play the theremin, visit  Utne.com/Theremin . 

Playing the theremin transforms Bobby Skinner’s entire body into an instrument. “I am part of an electronic bubble,” he says, “pulling pitch with the right side of my body while my left side manipulates the notes.” He conjures music through a ballet of hands, fingers, and arms, plucking notes like dreams from air.

There is no touch involved in playing the theremin, no frets to guide, no keys that lead the player directly to a given note. It’s a purely electronic instrument, reacting to the proximity of the player’s body to its two metal antennae. It is quite simple to make sounds with a theremin; anybody can do it. It is quite a different matter to organize these sounds into recognizable notes, and it requires an investment of several years to master this instrument skillfully enough to play it in an ensemble.

The position of the hands is as individual as the theremin players themselves. Skinner prepares to play by forming one hand into an “OK” configuration. He admits that playing the first note to match the key signature in any ensemble requires both acumen and “a leap of faith.” If he muffs the first note, experience and a good ear allow him to quickly adjust. Once he locates the right pitch in the key signature, muscle memory takes over.

When Skinner encountered his first theremin, he knew that it was responsible for all those kitschy sound effects in B-movie science fiction films from the 1950s. His formal introduction to the instrument would come through a friend who gave him an old 78 recording called “Music Out of the Moon.”

“She thought [it] was strange enough to send me, and when I listened to the 78s, which were from the 1940s or 1950s, it was like lounge music.” But it had an effect on him. “I thought the instrument would be a challenge,” Skinner says. He got one and began playing, though “it took about a year until I was finally comfortable enough to play with groups.”

When he entered the University of New Orleans in 1998, he gained a fuller understanding of the intricacies of the instrument and of music itself. He is now a sought-after musician whose abilities allow him the latitude to play anything from symphonic pieces to jazz or country. When he’s speaking about the theremin, he often refers to its approximation of the human voice. Skinner cites The Little Mermaid soundtrack and Patsy Cline’s melody in “Crazy” as favorites.

Skinner’s true musical home is with the New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestra. Listening to them in a stripped-down upstairs room on New Orleans’ Julia Street, it’s easy to see why. New Leviathan is about freedom. It’s a mix of Dixieland, ragtime, and jazz-inspired spontaneity. The group played several numbers, and there was an acoustical aspect to the room that was sweet but incomplete until finally Skinner conjured sound like a sorcerer. Then the wood floor vibrated until the last notes left through the half-opened windows.

 

Excerpted from OffBeat (Dec. 2009), which covers the vibrant music, food, and culture of New Orleans and Louisiana.  www.offbeat.com