Composing for Theremin
A technical overview for composers
DRAFT : DECEMBER 2018
The theremin is an early electronic monophonic instrument invented in 1920 by Léon Theremin (1896-1993, b. St Petersburg, d. Moscow). The following technical note is intended to assist composers and arrangers. Though it relates specifically to the Moog Etherwave Pro, it could be used as a general guide for the capabilities of any high-quality instrument.
The theremin has several unique features that can be used in a musical way: it has an unending tone which can be shaped into phrases of unlimited length; it can be made louder and softer at any moment, without the requirement to change bow or draw breath; it has an enormous range enabling portamento over several octaves; it can create unusual and otherworldly sounds unlike any acoustic instrument.
Its most striking feature lies in its tonal character and capability for expression. Its tone usually falls somewhere between a stringed instrument and a human voice (although this can be adjusted); its tremendously sensitive pitch and volume controls allow player to translate movement immediately into musical expression unconstrained by keys, frets or strings; almost all expression derives from nuances in pitch (especially vibrato and portamento) and volume; it is capable of a wide range of inflections and expressions but overall has proved best suited to lyrical and expressive lines.
Of course, the theremin’s most obvious unique feature is that it is controlled without physical contact. but this serves no musical purpose. After an audience has grown accustomed to the novelty value of the theremin, they quickly begin to focus on other aspects of the performance, such as phrasing, tone quality, expression and overall musicality.
The theremin has a playable range of approximately five octaves, from C2 to C7. The most comfortable playing tessitura overlaps with the human voice and the common stringed instruments. With some adjustments, the overall range of the instrument can be extended to cover eight octaves, from A0 to A7. The very highest and lowest ranges of the instrument are quite difficult to play; if a large or unusual range is required, this should probably be discussed with the musician.
Notation is traditionally on a single stave, with clef changes as required (bass and treble). This can include specific indications for dynamics and expression, such as glissandi/portamenti, phrase marks, slurs, articulation etc., as one would use for any other monophonic instrument, or these can be left to the player’s discretion. Other indications could include specific timbres (e.g. voice-like, string-like, flute-like, sinusoidal, buzzy…), evocations of specific genres (e.g. B-movie vibrato, vibrato a la Clara Rockmore), or anything else the composer can imagine. A number of composers (including Percy Grainger and Jorge Campos) have also produced graphic scores for the theremin.
Since the theremin is played entirely by ear, it is also helpful for a performer to have access to a recording or reference track of the composition (as an audio or MIDI file) in addition to a notated score.
Volume on the theremin is governed by movement of the left hand above a looped volume antenna. As the hand moves higher and away from the antenna, a tone can be heard and grows gradually louder. The volume antenna is extremely sensitive and can produce a huge spectrum of dynamics, from extremely soft pianissimo to the loudest fortissimo. It is also capable of unlimited sustain, and the player can change dynamics at any point while sounding a note, unconstrained by the need to draw breath or change bows.
Since the theremin is electronic, the maximum volume of the instrument is determined before the performance begins, by the overall levels of any amplifiers and speakers. It is therefore critical to have a soundcheck to determine the instrument is the appropriate volume for the player, other musicians, and the audience relative to any other instruments.
The theremin produces a continuous tone and all articulation (apart from portamento) is consciously “performed” by the player. The natural decay and attack of a string or a voice is not natural to the instrument and if desired, has to be imitated. All types of articulation are theoretically possible including legato, détaché, portato, staccato, accents, and percussive sounds. Legato is the most natural mode of expression, achieved either by changing pitch as rapidly as possible to minimize the duration of audible slides, or else by dipping the volume hand to “conceal” slides between notes as best as possible. These two techniques suffice for almost all expressive playing. Staccato is rather trickier, achieved by rapidly flicking the hand to trigger a tone. With less time to find and correct each pitch, it comes at the expense of pitch accuracy and comes with certain limitations: faster runs of staccato notes have to have the notes placed close together; the faster the staccato, the larger the intervals, and the longer the passage, the more likely it is that something will go wrong.
Other forms of articulation that are possible include trills, appogiaturas, pronounced glissandi, and vibrato (used naturally for expression, but can be exaggerated for special effect).
It is also possible to imitate certain aspects of vocal technique (e.g. vocal vibrato, scoops, taking breaths) and string technique (e.g. faster vibrato, simulated string position changes).
Since theremin is played entirely by ear, the most suitable repertoire tends to be lyrical, flowing melodies with stepwise movements and intervals of up to an octave. Ideas of comfortable melodic shapes can be gleaned from the transcribed repertoire regularly played on theremin. Intervals of up to an octave are usually no problem to play, but the larger the gap between one interval and the next, the higher the risk becomes of missing a note, and playing off key. Successive large intervals, rapid arpeggios, jumps of much more than an octave or compound melodies are very difficult. Also, atonal and avant-garde melodies are much harder to play (and take longer to prepare) than those which can be easily sung, as everything has to be played by ear.
A further point to consider is that before beginning to play a passage, the player has to find their starting note, either by means of quietly hunting for it (by very quietly raising the left hand to hear what note will sound, before beginning to play), by means of a visual tuner (which I tend to use when playing in ensemble), or a combination of both techniques. This note-searching should be taken into account in any composition, especially when quick changes in register are involved.
The theremin allows for numerous unusual extended techniques: touching the pitch antenna produces a unwavering tone of high but unpredictable pitch; a register switch on the front of the instrument allows rapid octave switching (only really as a special effect, as touching the metal dial also changes the pitch); the very lowest registers recall a Geiger counter or revving car engine; the highest registers recall string harmonics or birdsong.