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Theremin turning heads in Canadian music, literary circles

11/08/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 01/07/2015 05:59 EST
The sound it produces is beautiful, unsettling, haunting and unmistakable … resembling, as one critic famously said, "a cello lost in a dense fog, crying because it does not know how to get home."  

He was talking about the theremin, also called the vox or "the voice from heaven." It's a mysterious electronic instrument whose Bolshevik and Cold War history is as fascinating as the music it makes.

"The theremin is the only instrument you play without touching it," says Clara Venice, one of the few composers who writes pop music for the theremin.

"It has two antennae. The one on the right controls the pitch and the one on the left controls the volume, and as your move your hands around the antenna, you create sound. And if you practice a lot you can make make music."

She adds that there are no keys, frets or other guides to tell the musician where the notes are.

"I describe it as the instrument you play with your intentions. You think of a note, you find the note in thin air, Venice says. "It’s an act of conjuring. It’s a dance as well, because when you play it, you are constantly moving, and adjusting. It’s a partner."

The theremin - once hailed as both a musical and scientific breakthrough - has lived most of its modern life on the fringes, in creepy movie soundtracks and pop music cameos.

But right here in Canada, the theremin seems to be having a bit of a mainstream moment.

Venice just completed a residency at the National Music Centre in Calgary. She celebrated her return to Toronto with a concert a few weeks ago, and is working on her second EP.

"The theremin is cool, it’s sexy, and it can be used in any kind of music," Venice says. "It doesn’t have to be classical music. It doesn’t have to be experimental music. It can be used in R&B. I cover Bad Religion with the Theremin. I cover R Kelly with the Theremin. I write my own pop music with the theremin and it fits."

Montreal author Sean Michaels' novel, Us Conductors, is a love story rooted in the connection between Lev Theremin - the instrument's inventor - and its most famous player - Clara Rockmore. The book is a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which will be awarded Monday night.

“Us Conductors  traces Theremin’s invention of the device when he lived in Russia around the Bolshevik revolution, his travel to America as one of the greatest stars of his day, and then his return to Russia where he was sent to a Gulag prison in Siberia," says Michaels.

"It traces those broad historical moments, the nightlife of New York brushing shoulders with the Gershwins, Charlie Chaplin, the Rockefellers. But is also digs deep into ideas of heartbreak, unrequited love, and the things we do to make it through hardship alive."

He says anyone can make sounds on a theremin, but the instrument is exceptionally difficult to master.

"To me, having a theremin in the living room is a bit like having a wild animal. Most of us hold our flimsy hands in front of these antennae and we make this warbly shaky sound and hit the wrong notes. It all just ends up sounding like a dying cat."

Venice says when the theremin came out it took the world by storm. RCA bought the patent and was going to produce them, but then Lev Theremin was imprisoned by Stalin and disappeared. RCA no longer had a spokesperson, the public face who could bridge the gap between the instrument and the  public.

"So the question is whether it was his disappearance that affected the instruments’  fate, or was it just that it’s so damned hard to play?," she says.

(To listen to The Sunday Edition's documentary on the theremin, Out of Thin Air, tune in to CBC Radio on Sunday Nov. 9 starting at 9 a.m. or click the "Out of Thin Air" box to the top-left of this story.)

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