New Forum: Composing for theremin

Posted: 2/20/2007 8:28:44 PM

From: Kansas City, Mo.

Joined: 8/23/2005

[b]to get started...[/b]

This post is to share some of my thoughts regarding works for Theremin and pre-recorded tracks. At first I was going to post under the "Arranging for Theremin" thread however the topic concerns original electronic compositions in which the Theremin plays a role.

For starters, here is a quote from the "Gordon's Progress" thread wherein Gordon speaks highly of a Dorit Chrysler performance that Gordon witnessed:

[i]"Dorit has a powerful stage presence - no doubt helped by her looks, she's a statuesque lady (so no Dickens jokes!) with a bright red dress and an ePro, so even before she started she had the audience out of their seats and on the floor. And she held their attention - she spoke to them, told them the names of her pieces (and dedicated the first one to the thereminists in the audience :-) and the pure tones of the theremin (and her voice) cut through all that horrid muddiness and gave the audience something worth listening to. The music was intelligent, accessible and varied. Excellent. Backing was supplied by an iBook."[/i]

[b]Backing was supplied by an iBook[/b]

There are many reasons one would choose to work with pre-recorded accompianment. The point is that Dorit is, by any measure, a professional and her choice to use (what I presume to be) her own arrangements that she recorded in advance apparently didn't detract from her performance.

The reason that I use my own tracks is that the tracks are integral parts of my compositions -- that is, I write specifically for pre-recorded electronics and live Theremin. There are a number of reasons for this:

1) I love electronic music and I like the interplay between the Theremin and electronic tracks.

2) I love orchestral music and electronics allows me to use orchestral samples, too.

3) I like merging it all... electronic sounds, samples, and the Theremin.

I do not regard my pre-recorded tracks as mere "backing" -- they are as integral to the result as is the Theremin part.

Another reason for designing my compositions around the pre-recorded tracks plus Theremin is to address the possibility of others playing my work. If others wish to play my compositions they would be able to do so with the electronic tracks, the notated Theremin part, and their Theremin.

Much synthesized music is designed to be heard in recorded form. Morton Subotnik mentions (in the liner notes for "Silver Apples of the Moon") that the work is specifically intended to be heard through playback equipment.

My work is is similar -- I wish to exploit the electronic medium and produce sounds and textures that would be well-nigh impossible in real time.


Over the last 1 1/2 years I have encountered the occasional "dig" at pre-recorded tracks. Words such as "Theremin Karaoke" or "Thereoke" or "canned" come to mind.

However, I think professionalism has more to do with ones attitude and preparation rather than the choice of medium.

Like any artform, the quality of the result is often related to the work that goes into the product. Hard work doesn't guarantee that any particular work will be well-received, of course -- however with enough consistant effort one will likely experience some measure of satisfaction, success, or whatever.

To integrate one's performance with pre-recorded tracks can be very demanding and the medium can be pushed as far as one cares to push it.


Personally, I distinguish between "Karaoke" and compositions that include pre-recorded tracks. "Karaoke" tracks are often used to accompany amateurs while flashing the words on a screen. The focus is on "the performer" and NOT on "the sound" or even "the listeners".

As a result, I blanche at the notion of "Theremin Karaoke". To my way of thinking, "Karaoke" is to music-making as "Charades" is to acting. There is nothing wrong with i
Posted: 2/21/2007 8:57:16 AM

From: Kingston, NY

Joined: 2/13/2005

Interesting discourse Kevin, thank you.
It hits on several things I've been pondering lately.

For me the use of electronic "tape" [or CD, MD, HD, loopers, etc. now-a-days]
is both a direct outgrowth of western musical tradition and a cross-genre expression of human creativity in music.

Pieces for organ and electronic tape (e.g. Black Host [Organ, Percussion & Tape], Bolcom),
choir and electronic tape ('In the Beginning', Daniel Pinkham),
and even orchestra and electronically enhanced whale recordings ('And God Created Great Whales', Hovhaness),
extended the previous traditional ensemble forms in shocking, effective, and expressive ways.
Wendy Carlos extended that further by creating her own electronic orchestra to play in tunings or with timbrel variations a live traditional ensamble could not have.

The organ was the first 'synthesizer' allowing a single player to not only play a wide variety of timbres but to combine them to make new ones, and it's development was fueled but the same creative spirit as that which later drove sound on sound recording, music concrete and the invention of the synthesizer itself. Hayden and Mozart wrote for musical clocks, now we write for MIDI clocks. It's a continuum and to discount new music works and performance inovations simply because the sound vocabulary cannot be produced live, or cannot be accomplished by a single performer who executes other parts live is short sighted I think.

Embracing these tools is not exclusive to the western tradition either, it's happened in Jazz, Indian, Afro-Cuban music. And how do you draw a lines between performing with a tape and performing with a D.J. mixing pre-recorded phono disks, or a looper player creating backing tracks live, or a theremin player triggering "canned" samples? A human being was creatively involved in every step leading up to the shared moment of music. Simply because they are not physically present, or are busy playing other parts live at the moment does not diminish their involvement in the performance.
Electronics allowed me and a great many others to write large electronic + orchestral style scores for the theater when there was no budget or space at all for instrumentalists, even if they could have played it. Economic declines and the diminisment of un-paid group musiking habits have made technological alternatives essential for individual artists. I would love to perform with a live electro-acoustic ensemble, but I don't see that happening any time soon. So should I just not do anything even though I can produce backing tracks of my own and classical pieces?

Karaoke itself could be seen as a popular entertainment outgrowth of our ancient impulses for group synchronization via 'Musiking' (the act of making music) which in other cultures might involve spirit possession invoked by specialized drumming patterns, but here the drummers are replaced by Music Minus One arrangements of popular tunes. The act of making and participating in music connects the minds of players and listeners in ways nothing else can. It is an essential, primitive and ancient, function of various parts of our brain that not only introduces us to language itself but provides the key rituals and rhythms for our social education, cooperation and artistic creations far beyond the single individual.

In the Wikipedia entry on "Electronic art music"
not only is the theremin mentioned but also many of the other permutations of acoustic and electronic sound for use in music we're discussing are put in a clear context of western musical history.

Yes hurrah for Dorit on several levels, her integration of dramatic gesture into her theremin playing adds a dimension to her live playing that's very exciting and a direct outgrowth of the musical idea at hand no matter what is backing her up.
Posted: 2/21/2007 9:06:45 AM

From: Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, UK

Joined: 10/5/2005

Hi Kevin,

I get that your quote from Gordon's Progress was a kicking off point for discussing the use of pre-recorded tracks in live performances, and agree with your conclusions.

Nonetheless for the sake of clarity I should mention that the reason the pre-recorded parts of Dorit's performance assumed the status of "mere" backing from an audience perspective was not that it was played from an iBook but that the venue's P.A. was inadequate to the task, making everything but the vocal and theremin parts somewhat muddy and indistinct. Had she been accompanied by live musicians playing through the same sound system the result would have been the same - as was evinced by the other acts performing that night.

(Also I should say that despite this it was a wonderful and most enjoyable performance.)
Posted: 5/18/2007 11:10:53 AM

Joined: 5/18/2007

I'm looking for a Thermin-player, who would be interested in helping me to develop pieces for Thermin and Strings/Orchestra. The pieces will be solicited for performance and publication.

Anyone interested?
Posted: 5/18/2007 11:13:41 AM

From: Kingston, NY

Joined: 2/13/2005

Yes. Will contact you via your web site.
Posted: 6/20/2007 10:12:20 PM

From: Quebec, Canada

Joined: 6/18/2007

Hi everyone.
I've read this entire thread and am here to dump my thoughts. These are from someone who is yet to actually properly play a theremin but who has quite a bit of experience with solfege (aka ear training) and notation.

I see nothing wrong with the traditional notation when it comes to theremin playing. A competent musician can easily hum a melody (the one on the first page of C F# F... is similar to Maria from West Side Story iirc) and I see little difference between the free pitches of a singer and those of a theremin. Sure, this is going to estrange a few non-musicians, but this is clearly not an instrument that you start out playing if you want to do music professionally.
With a composing software like Sibelius you can mess around with the notation pretty much as much as you want.
After seeing Cassandra's Dream Song by Ferneyhough (for flute at Archambault in Montreal) I have few doubts as to what classical music notation can do.

As for recording your own background and playing it through a laptop, I see no problem with this. Many people are doing this will a whole array of instruments.
Posted: 10/29/2007 2:22:05 PM

From: Kansas City, Mo.

Joined: 8/23/2005

Hi! I just completed a new work just in time for Halloween. It is entitled "The Sad Little Ghost":

This work was done to make a Sunday deadline for Spellbound's Halloween special (and I managed to make it!). Many things kept me from composing and I ended up composing, learning (I had to learn the theremin part that I composed), recording, and mixing this in about 8 hours total time.

Due to an emergency situation, I was unable to go to bed overnight Saturday so by the time I worked on this I had already been up for 30+ hours. Still can't believe I managed to do this

Hope you enjoy this track.

[b]a few notes[/b]

My goal was to write a work that exploits the theremin's ability to sustain notes while imparting expression. I also wanted to write lines that lend themselves to gentle portamento treatment.

I increased the volume field to the maximum setting to allow me a wider expression arc (the way Takeuchi sets his expression field -- very large).

[i]-- Kevin[/i]

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