New Forum: Composing for theremin

Posted: 8/31/2005 11:29:29 PM

From: new haven ct.

Joined: 7/8/2005

That's another nice thing about the Wavefront Classic, it's designed so that you can put your music on it, like the Vangard
Posted: 10/24/2005 2:25:10 AM

From: Waterloo, Ontario

Joined: 10/24/2005

I think reading sheet music would be damn hard with a theremin unless you are very well trained at, say, singing directly off the page (sight singing). on a piano, if you need to play a major third, you know that a third is two keys with three keys in between them. On the theremin you have to know what a third SOUNDS like, and that's fairly easy when playing just a third, but when playing it in the context of a song, depending where that third is in the scale and in relation to the other notes going on, could sound very different from another third. Try picking up some sheet music for a song you've never heard, try humming the melody, then go play it on the piano, and unless you are very well trained it's probably going to sound different.

Of course the issue of perfect pitch pops up. very few people can sing a middle C just off the top of their head without a relative pitch to compare. Unlike on any other instrument where a middle C is a particular key, string, fret, etc.

I guess my point is that reading sheet music on theremin is practically useless. You're better off hearing the part played on another instrument or a recording, and learning it by ear.

As far as notation for certain types of vibratos and other colourations, I think that those effects should be left up to the performer. Part of the duty of the performer is not only playing the right notes but interpreting the piece in their own way, playing it the way they think it should be played. That's part of the art of performing music. So again, notation is practically useless for the theremin.

As far as composing for the theremin, my biggest complaint is that it is monophonic. I love to sit around alone with my electric guitar, turn the lights down low, and just play what my mood demands. with polyphony you can get all sorts of different moods, with monophony it is much more difficult. Not impossible, but much more difficult to get a wide variety of textures and feelings.

Speaking of texture, the theremin lacks that too. I mean, sure you can adjust the two tone knobs on the theremin to get different textures, but not while you're playing. I've started using a rather unique distortion pedal with my theremin, and as the volume changes, the texture changes, and there's a certain spot where you can get a very vocal "wha"-like expression. Back when I got my theremin, the warranty card had a spot asking what improvements you'd like to see. I suggested they (Big Briar) come out with an expression pedal, something like a wha-wha pedal, for the theremin. That was nine years ago, still no sign of it. Even just a pedal to control the brightness or Texture knobs on the theremin would be useful. I don't think there's a single other instrument in the world that doesn't produce a varying tone as the volume and pitch change.

I do think that the theremin still has huge potential in the songs of the future, as it is still hardly well known to the masses. I've known about it most of my life, having been a Beach Boys fan since childhood, but when I play my theremin at shows with my band, the majority of the audience are completely new to it. "What the heck was that?" is a question I get frquently, or something to that effect.

As popularity grows, some more Clara Rockmore types should come out of the woodwork and really make the theremin shine, but unlike the guitar or piano, its not an instrument that just anyone can pick up and play a decent tune on in a few days. I like to say that the theremin is probably the easiest instrument in the world to play, but one of the hardest to play well.

The theremin is the ultimate "feel" instrument, right there beside the voice. I find that when I'm not in the right state of mind I just can't play the theremin worth dirt. You need to be in a really calm, focused state to play it well, and I think there's something really deep to this feeling, something vital
Posted: 10/24/2005 11:04:57 AM

From: Hillsborough, NC (USA)

Joined: 2/13/2005

Thanks for the interesting comments.

I'm not sure I agree with your opinion on reading sheet music for the theremin, but I respect it. Personally, I've never been good at sight reading, but I don't understand why the theremin would be any different than any other instrument here... Can you elaborate?

I definitely agree with your throughts on being able to control the tone of the theremin during a performance. I'd love to see a brightness/waveform pedal mod for the Etherwave. I think this is great area to explore and shouldn't be very difficult to implement.
Posted: 10/24/2005 6:23:37 PM

From: Waterloo, Ontario

Joined: 10/24/2005

The brightness/waveform pedal mod would not be hard at all really. All it would require is an expression pedal with the right value of potentiometer, and then just connect the wires from the pedal to the theremin in the right way, and voila.

About reading sheet music, I'll explain. Say you pick up a piece of music you've never heard before. As long as you know HOW to read music, you should be able to pick up the rhythm without a problem. Its the pitch that's the problem. Say the melody line goes like this: C F# F D# B C. Now, can you sing those notes? Unless you're well trained at sight singing you probably could not sing those notes correctly. And if you can't sing them right off the page, then I couldn't see it being any easier to play them on the theremin. But if you sit down at the piano, it would be easy to play, because you know exactly which keys correspond to each of those notes. What I mean is that on a piano you can just hit the right keys. on a guitar you can just pluck the right strings and press the right frets. On a sax you can just plug the right holes and blow properly. On the theremin, just like the voice, there are no keys or frets or any sort of marker for each note, so to play a sequence you have to know how it is going to sound before you play it, and this may be easy for a very simple melody like Mary Had a Little Lamb, but for anything more complex it becomes very difficult to know what it will sound like. The other point is that If you are playing solo, even if the melody looks simple enough, how do you know what the first note should sound like? Can you hum a middle C out of mid air? Not many people can, and those who can are said to have Perfect Pitch. But of course on a piano or guitar, you know exactly where that middle C is on the instrument, so you can just press your finger down there and the right note will pop out. How can you tell exactly where that middle C is on the theremin?

Does that clear things up, or did I just regurgitate what I said before? Maybe someone else can sum up what I mean, be a little more concise about it.
Posted: 10/24/2005 10:46:06 PM

From: Jax, FL

Joined: 2/14/2005

Reading basic notes and melodies would be pretty much the same as any other instrument.

The waveform and brightness settings could just be notated on the sheet music. Staccato and legato too and other parameters, too.

Think of violin music. The player can play the piece off of the sheet music. Of course there is room for interpretation and there would be
for theremin too. Maybe more than with some other instruments.

Where it becomes difficult, I think, is in the area of microtones. How would you notate them?

Posted: 10/25/2005 1:44:52 AM

From: Waterloo, Ontario

Joined: 10/24/2005

reading sheet music would still be different than when using a violin. On a violin you've got open strings that are tuned to certain notes. Assuming the strings are in tune, then if you want to play an F#, you know that that note is located about a centimeter from the nut on the E string. Of course there are other places to play it, and any violinist will know where the are located on the fingerboard. If you're not sure if your fingertip is pressing the string down at exactly the right place, you can compare that note to an open string, and finetune your finger placement.

On a theremin, you have no fingerboard or nut on which to base your hand/finger placement, and you have no open strings to compare to, so how could you possibly know if you are playing the right note, unless you have another instrument or recording to compare to, or you have perfect pitch or are extremely well trained at sight reading?

Try picking up some sheet music you've never heard before, and try sight reading it on the theremin. Can you do it? Are you sure you're playing the right notes? Now sight read it on the piano, assuming you have basic piano skills which most musicians have, this should be no problem. Now compare: Did you start on the right note on the theremin? Did you play all the right notes? I believe that only the best musicians could do this with anything other than a basic entry-level piece of music, such as Mary Had a Little Lamb. Then again, only someone with perfect pitch would know which pitch to start on. Sure, you can see on the sheet music that it starts on E, but how do you find that E on the theremin?
Posted: 10/26/2005 12:11:04 AM

From: Kansas City, Mo.

Joined: 8/23/2005

I am writing this as a long-time musician that has been playing the Theremin for about six weeks. I have been doing a number of "experiments" to develop my technique for playing and composing for the Theremin. Here are some observations:

~~ playing in harmony on multi-tracks ~~

To play traditional, tonal music the tuning becomes very critical. Important to get the first Theremin track correct so that the others don't get "thrown" off. To start with the lower pitched parts and layer the higher parts seems to work best for me.

~~ unison pitches ~~

However, if two parts happen to play the same pitch -- beware! You will hit your pitch while the recording hits its pitch. When two pitches play close, but not exactly, the ear will pick up the lower of the two pitches as THE pitch. So... say your first track hits the pitch a little flat and corrects up to pitch -- then you listen to that track while recording a second part... when you come to that note, well, even if you hit it a little sharp -- your ear will hear the recorded "flat" pitch and you will instinctively correct upward -- making your sharp pitch even sharper! So, when composing for multiple theremin parts: beware of unisons. However, you can successfully have unison pitches as long as the parts don't hit the note at the same time -- if one part hits the note on beat one and another part on beat two, then it works ok.

~~ bass is harder to play than treble ~~

Some may dispute this point, however, I find bass to be somewhat hard to play compared to tenor and above. Bass is easier to hear if its timbre is bright -- so if your composition has the Theremin playing in the deep bass, you may want to arrange it for a relatively bright timbre.

~~ sight-reading and traditional notation ~~

I wouldn't recommend Theremin to someone as their first instrument. To start on a keyboard allows one to learn note-reading, harmony, rhythm, and theory without the added burden of learning how to "pluck notes from the air". I think to compose for Theremin -- that is, compose music that will be played by others, a composer would have to expect the performer to have music-reading ability. To compose for oneself can be done by ear -- the problem comes when someone else says, "that's a cool composition... have you published the music?"

~~ expression and style ~~

I tend to think performers respond to broad direction -- a love ballad would be interpreted differently from a sci-fi special effect. If I wrote a melody and included a direction, such as, "nervous vibrato" -- or "voice like" -- "no vibrato" -- or "slow, drunken vibrato" I bet most Thereminists would know what to do. Of course, they'd all do it with their own style which would be quite wonderful, don't you think? I am not sure if a composer would have to notate every nuance most of the time. (i.e., write out the notes of your choice, give them to your favorite Thereminist -- and chances are you will get a musical result.)

~~ microtonal playing ~~

Personally, I am comfortable thinking in terms of "dark = slightly flat" , "nominal = on pitch", and "bright = slightly sharp". Such a system would give each of the twelve notes three separate pitches. The Theremin is somewhat imprecise here though I think a performer will instincively "sharpen" pitches in the treble a bit (to make it sound brighter). I'm not sure how I'd go about notating it -- maybe with up and down arrows next to the note to indicate "bright" or "dark". This topic leads to temperment...

~~ The Well-tempered Theremin ~~

Couldn't resist this line... I will be experimenting with different temperments. I believe that if my accompiament is in a non-equal temperment, that I will simply match pitch on the Theremin to blend with the accompianment. I will write more about this as I gain experience with it. I am very interested in music voiced with detuned harmonics and
Posted: 10/26/2005 1:22:53 AM

From: Louisville, KY

Joined: 8/28/2005

As a guy who's trying to learn walking bass lines, it was heartening to read a quote of Sun Ra's where he said jazz has a lot to do with correcting little imperfections. Someone plays sharp, so someone else plays flat to compensate... When was the last time someone left a jazz concert saying, "Wow, they played every note correctly!"

I have a Boss RC-20 loop pedal. Often, I'll play a bass line on it, and then loop it and play over it. Playing way down in the geiger counter range with a very bright tone seems to hide being off key as much as the falsetto zone, IMO. Unfortunately, I really like the cello range, in which mistakes always seem amplified.
Posted: 10/26/2005 8:54:29 AM
Charlie D

From: England

Joined: 2/28/2005

Somebody wrote earlier:

"my biggest complaint is that it is monophonic. I love to .. play what my mood demands. With polyphony you can get all sorts of different moods, with monophony it is much more difficult. Not impossible, but much more difficult to get a wide variety of textures and feelings."

Hmmm. I'm not sure I agree. There seems to be something about improvising on the theremin that makes it *hugely* expressive. One doesn't need to concentrate on deciding which note or chord to use next as you would on a piano, but rather you can freely through-compose a melody, as you do when singing. I cannot think of many other instruments on which that is possible so readily other than the voice.

On top of this ability to intepret the melody you hear in your head straight away (without fumbling over keys and strings), the thereminist also has a huge range of vibrato techniques at his or her disposal, many of which can evoke moods in an instant- on one single note. On a piano this is completely impossible. The pianist must suggest harmonic structure or meter in order to evoke a mood. He cannot make one note seem grief-stricken, warm, sorrowful or frantic. I feel that this ability more than compensates for a lack of polyphony.

I play the piano as my other instrument, and the theremin seems about as far removed from it as is possible. That is one of reasons why I selected it as a second serious instrument on which to practice. It's given me huge new possibilities for compostion and direction, and I honestly have no complaints to make, except to mention the lack of players! I've never even seen anyone else play the instrument, except for when my friends try it out. Rarely can that ever be called 'playing' regrettably. :(
Posted: 10/26/2005 6:37:44 PM

From: Kansas City, Mo.

Joined: 8/23/2005


Couldn't agree with you more. I have found the Theremin to be a great compliment to playing keyboards.

In fact, my pipe organ playing has improved since I have taken up the Theremin...

To play the Theremin requires a a high level of attention -- though a monophonic instrument each note requires the utmost care.

For me, Theremin playing brings me into "the zone" -- that place where I am serenely focused on music making. As I have practiced the Theremin, I have found that I carry this same sense to playing the pipe organ.

I am finding, too, that it is easier now for me to play accurately on a keyboard. I have always played accurately -- however it seems like less of a strain now than before I took up the Theremin.

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