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Music and ... the Theremin, The Left Bank, Hereford, 30/07/2015 (part of the Three Choirs Festival).

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Music and ... the Theremin, The Left Bank, Hereford, 30/07/2015 (part of the Three Choirs Festival).

Ian Mann is informed, educated and entertained by this talk / musical performance presented by sound artists and instrument builders MortonUnderwood together with theremin virtuoso Lydia Kavina.

Photograph of Leon Theremin with the young Lydia Kavina sourced from

Music and ...the Theremin, The Left Bank, Hereford, 30/07/2015
(part of the Three Choirs Festival).

This fascinating event, part talk, part musical performance was part of Three Choirs Plus, a welcome adjunct to the main Three Choirs Festival. The “Plus” programme included an extensive series of talks, lectures, exhibitions, demonstrations and workshops plus less formal street performances of music across a variety of genres.

I’ve always harboured a secret love for the eerie sounds of the theremin, probably because of its use on sci-fi and horror movie soundtracks and because of my mistaken belief (more on that later) that it was featured in the arrangement of the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”.

More recently my fascination with the instrument was piqued by a performance by the jazz/avant rock trio Blueblut, a Vienna based band featuring drummer Mark Holub (more familiar as the leader of the group Led Bib), Austrian guitarist and producer Chris Janka and theremin specialist Pamelia Kurstin. In November 2014 I enjoyed a performance by Blueblut in the unlikely setting of the Town Hall in the small Shropshire town of Bishop’s Castle (apparently Kurstin has family connections in the area) and my review of that concert also takes a look at Blueblut’s début album “Hurts So Gut”, a slightly self indulgent but largely very enjoyable and convincing release. Kurstin has also collaborated with the British drummer Sebastian Rochford with whom she released the duo album “Ouch Evil Slow Hop” in 2011, a recording reviewed for this site by Tim Owen who also covered a live performance by the duo at London’s Café Oto at around the same time.

Today’s event took place in a function room at Hereford’s newly re-opened Left Bank complex, a venue overlooking the picturesque Old Bridge and the beautiful River Wye. It was hosted by the Worcestershire based sound artists and instrument builders MortonUnderwood together with theremin virtuoso Lydia Kavina.

David Morton and Sam Underwood have a workshop in rural Worcestershire where they manufacture weird and wonderful musical instruments, some of them large scale commissions for installations in cities such as Birmingham and London. They have a particular interest in low frequency sounds, perhaps the natural extension of Underwood’s tuba playing – he regularly performs as part of an improvising trio alongside saxophonist Colin Webster and turntable artist Graham Dunning.

Among MortonUnderwood’s recent commissions was a ‘Giant Feedback Organ’ built from huge air duct pipes for the South Bank’s “Pull Out All The Stops” festival celebrating the restoration of the organ at the Royal Festival Hall. It can generate some seriously low frequencies. The duo also describe themselves as “sonic graffiti artists” due to their fondness of leaving recording and playback gadgets in the wild for other people to find. 

However it’s arguable that perhaps MortonUnderwood’s greatest triumph has been the creation of the “If Wet…” series of events which they hold regularly at Callow End Village Hall near Worcester.  At these events they invite fellow musical mavericks and inventors along on a “show and tell”  basis to present both their instruments and their music. Conceived in 2013 as an antidote to the endless parade of blues and rock covers bands at the village hall the events, which take place on a Sunday afternoon, have proved to be a great success. Morton coined the name of the event, blatantly nicked from the ubiquitous last line on posters for village fêtes everywhere - “in the village hall if wet”. Despite the experimental nature of the music that village feel has also been vitally important to the success of the event with tea, cakes, home-made soup and real ale from a local brewery all part of the If Wet… experience. It has even inspired the If Wet Radio Show, a monthly broadcast on Sound Art Radio that has been aired on Sunday afternoons during lulls in the regular live events.

Such has been the success of If Wet… that the duo have toured with the format in other parts of the country including Sussex, Somerset and Cumbria, presumably retaining that rural vibe on their travels. The project has even captured the attention of Wire magazine which advertises the events and ran a feature on If Wet… and MortonUnderwood in its June 2014 edition.

Today’s event was essentially If Wet… number 23 and it was evident that the previous twenty three editions have sharpened MortonUnderwood’s presentation skills with Sam Underwood doing most of the talking and David Morton contributing a series of witty asides. The mix of information and humour was just right with Kavina adding some of her technical knowledge of the instrument and providing musical illustrations.

Kavina is an interesting character, now based in Oxfordshire but born in Russia she is a distant relative of Leon (or Lev) Theremin (1896 -1993) who invented the instrument in 1919. She began playing the instrument at the age of nine and was tutored by Theremin himself, who at that time was well into his eighties. Kavina has released several albums of music for the theremin, these including arrangements for the instrument of existing classical works plus several albums of contemporary music written specifically for the theremin. Among the composers who have produced work for the instrument is the Australian born Percy Grainger (1882 – 1961).

Sam Underwood began the proceedings by telling us something about the theremin, describing how it produces sound via an electro-magnetic field and with the vertical antenna controlling the pitch and the horizontal bar the volume, both of which are variable according to the position of the player and particularly the player’s hands. Kavina demonstrated these principles by performing a brief section of George Gershwin’s best loved tune “Summertime”. She made it look easy.

David Morton then read out an early RCA advert for the theremin, the sales pitch being that anybody could play an instrument with no keys, strings, tubes, valves etc. all you needed was your hands and your imagination. A young volunteer from the crowd was then invited to play “Three Blind Mice”  on Kavina’s theremin, needless to say it wasn’t easy at all! Performers such as Kavina and Kurstin have a life time of practice behind them and Kavina now gave a brief demonstration of how to play the instrument in tune.

The theremin is often confused with other instruments and Underwood now presented several examples of these beginning with the Ondes-Martenot, a keyboard based electronic instrument invented in 1927 but which was being developed at around the same time as the theremin. There are certain similarities about the sounds of the two instruments and the Ondes-Martenot, named after its inventor Maurice Martenot has gained a level of acceptance in the classical musical world and was featured in at least one performance at the 2015 Proms. In the rock world a celebrity exponent of the instrument is Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.

The most famous of theremin players on movie soundtracks was Samuel Hoffman who was in huge demand due to the technical skills required to play the theremin effectively. Trombonist Paul Tanner subsequently developed the electro-theremin, or tannerin, an instrument based on the theremin but fitted with a slide control that made it easier to play. It was this instrument that was actually heard on “Good Vibrations”, a revelation that shattered one of my long held illusions. It was also rumoured that Tanner could nail most things on the first take using the tannerin, the conventional theremin being much more difficult to play. This meant that he could pick up the same session fee as Hoffman but for a lot less work!

Whilst I could appreciate the difficulty for the untrained ear in distinguishing between the theremin, ondes-martenot and tannerin I still couldn’t see how anyone could mistake the theremin for the human voice despite the fact that Leon Theremin, himself a cellist, frequently referred to his invention as “the singing instrument”. The familiar strains of the “Star Trek Theme”, one recording featuring the human voice, the other the theremin illustrated the point. I doubt if anybody had any difficulty in telling them apart.   

However the next section emphasised the similarities between the voice and the theremin as the young local chorister Emily Prosser joined Kavina on the stage for a duo performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Requiem”. Prosser acquitted herself very well and although the two elements were easily distinguishable at the start a remarkable coalescence came about in the latter stages of the piece.

Indeed the theremin does possess something of the flexibility of the human voice, capable of producing sounds ranging across eight octaves, the same range as a piano keyboard, but without the ability to play chords. As if to illustrate the point Kavina demonstrated tones equivalent to violin, cello and the kind of walking bass lines that Kurstin had produced at that Blueblut performance.

The theremin is also an incredibly sensitive instrument, the sound of which can be affected by humidity and even the size and density of the audience. That sensitivity also means that it can be played by people with some kind of physical disability and like its latter day cousin the soundbeam it can have therapeutic applications and benefits. One acclaimed theremenist, Clara Rockmore , came to the instrument after a form of muscular de-generation meant that she was no longer able to play the violin.

Many of the above points came out in a productive question and answer session well marshalled by Sam Underwood and with many perceptive and interesting questions coming from a fully engaged audience. The size of the audience was also very gratifying with a surprisingly large crowd turning out for this event. I got the impression that everybody enjoyed it, the quality of the questioning bore this out as did the number of people who stayed on to chat with the presenters afterwards.

The afternoon concluded with Kavina playing a piece composed by the Hong Kong based flautist, percussionist and composer Lydia Ayers. “Rock Art In The Dream World” was originally composed for didgeridoo but its charming quirkiness was perfectly suited to this performance by Kavina on theremin allied to a backing track manipulated by Underwood.

Following the talk and performance members of the audience were encouraged to have a go on the theremin themselves. Besides Kavina’s concert model there were two other instruments provided for the public to use. Some of the audience members, presumably musicians themselves, were skilled enough to coax some recognisable tunes out of the ether. I contented myself with producing some dirty, synthesiser like sounds, fitting enough I thought bearing in mind the role Robert Moog played in developing the instrument. Indeed many modern theremins are still manufactured by the Moog company. 

My thanks go to MortonUnderwood, Lydia Kavina and Emily Prosser for this enjoyable event that more than adequately fulfilled the Reithian remit to “inform, educate and entertain”. My only regret was that I’d never attended an If Wet.. event previously. Sunday afternoons haven’t been a good time for me historically, too many other commitments, but on this evidence I’ve been seriously missing out. As it happens my Sunday timetable has now been altered and so I hope to attend any future If Wet… events on a more regular basis. 

Particular thanks go to Lydia Kavina for giving me permission to illustrate this feature with a photograph sourced from her website

Readers are also encouraged to visit;

plus Sam Underwood’s own site


Shortly after this review was posted Lydia Kavina was kind enough to forward the following article from Steven M. Martin. The item was originally posted on Facebook.

I wrote the following in response to yet another article about the use of the theremin in GOOD VIBRATIONS. Not sure why people even care that much about it, but if I say nothing it becomes the accepted truth. Here it is for anyone interested:

As the director of THEREMIN- An Electronic Odyssey, the film that got the theremin renaissance underway 20 years ago, I feel compelled to comment on the use of the theremin in GOOD VIBRATIONS. Brian Wilson had used the theremin before, and as anyone that saw my film can recall, he had exposure to it as a child. Few theremins were being manufactured by the mid-1960’s, and even fewer people could play them. There were only two theremin players in Los Angeles by 1966, one was getting quite old, and when they weren’t available for the long sessions Brian was holding, Paul Tanner was brought in with his homemade gizmo and asked to come as close as he could to the sound of a theremin, which he did. It mimicked a theremin in all ways except it was played by turning a knob instead of using space control, which of course limited its ability for subtle musical expression. Brian thought of it as a theremin, as did the rest of the world. End of story. Paul Tanner seems like he was a nice guy, and certainly had some musical ability, but to suggest there is anything more to the story is just silly. Bob Moog was asked to build a device The Beach Boys could take on the road as none of them had the chops to play a theremin. He built a ribbon controlled oscillator for them, which Mike Love can be seen struggling with in various film clips.

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