Dr. Samuel Hoffman, thereminist

August 11, 2006

theremin.jpgI looked in vain to try to find Clara Rockmore, my favorite thereminist, (a theremin player) but will settle today for Dr. Samuel Hoffman who kept up his “hobby” of playing the theremin for 30 years. Most people nowadays know the theremin by identifying it with that strange solo in the Beach Boys’ song, “Good Vibration.” It is also used on a lot of scary old movies. What this clip demonstrates is how the instrument is played. There are two antennae that are sensitive to the electromagnetic field in the human body. The right hand moves up and down to control pitch. The left hand controls volume so that raising the hand makes a crescendo and lowering it diminishes the sound so that if the hand is all the way down, the sound turns off. Vibrato is achieved by frequency modulation, or wavering the pitch with the right hand. This emulates the vibrato on a violin or a human voice. Amplitude modulation also achieves a kind of vibrato by varying the amplitude rapidly. This is the way a flute, or Donovan, or Neil Young achieve vibrato. The theremin doesn’t seem to embrace this option. Playing the instrument looks very other-worldly, something more believable as accompanying a seance than a piano.

The theremin player, like any good instrumentalist, has to learn to emulate the phrasing of a human voice. As we listen, we often unconsciously breathe along with the melodic phrase. If the phrase doesn’t breathe, we don’t either and become desparate to take a breath. We then have to violate a subsequent phrase in order to take one. There are no quick inhalations on a theremin to let us know that the instrument is breathing so the end of each phrase tapers to nothing to emulate breathing.

I wish I could tell you the name of this song, but I can’t. Just watch the mechanics of how the instrument is played. You never know, YOU could decide to play this instrument yourself. Granted, all your friends will think you flipped out, or have just become weird in your old age. You can build one yourself for a little over $300.

Charles Richard Lester, a flourishing thereminist himself, has an entertaining website devoted to the instrument. The late Robert Moog (pronounced MOGE not MUGE) was a champion of the theremin his entire life and paid for Clara’s theremin album as well as made theremins and theremin kits. His last company, moogmusic, is alive and well. There is a fun film called THEREMIN on DVD that will tell you about the amazing story of Leon Theremin. (To pique your curiosity, Theremin was the man who invented “the bug” for Russia for the purpose of spying.)

UPDATE: This email just [8//2012] in from George Byrd:

Dear Prof. Bourland,

I just read your blog entry on Dr. Hoffman’s Theremin performance, posted August 11, 2006 at

http://rogerbourland.com/2006/08/11/dr-samuel-hoffman-thereminist/

I notice your implicit question: “I wish I could tell you the name of this song, but I can’t. Just watch the mechanics of how the instrument is played.”

The song Dr. Hoffman performs in the video is “You were meant for me”, 1929, by Nacio Herb Brown, lyrics by Arthur Freed.

For more information, see:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Were_Meant_for_Me_%281929_song%29

Gene Kelly’s cover from “Singing in the Rain” is here:

I recognized Dr. Hoffman’s selection readily because I recalled seeing “Singing in the Rain” as a child.

Thought you might like to know the song title.

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