- Sight & Sound
February 16th, 2017
"My mission is to get more people excited about the theremin.” These are the words of Dorit Chrysler, composer, musician, and one of the theremin’s biggest champions. She founded Kid Cool Theremin School, where she teaches theremin classes to adults and children. Now she's begun a one-year residency at the Gaite Lyrique Museum in France that includes performances, lectures, and intensive long-term theremin classes co-taught with French thereminist Thomas Suire. This residency is part of a larger effort to open the hearts and minds of the greater public to the magic of the theremin. “The theremin still needs to be established more in the pantheon of accepted music instruments,” Dorit explains. “It’s just such a different, unusual interface, and it’s difficult to play, so it’s underestimated always.”
Perhaps there is so much room for growth in widespread acceptance of the theremin because it reminds us of what’s possible: reception and connection to everything within and around us.
The theremin can open us up to...
Dorit always recommends playing the theremin with closed eyes. “If you close your eyes, you are much more reduced to your own body and the motions you’re making. You have to focus on yourself, and you’re not distracted by the environment. Right now there are a thousand things to distract us all the time, so theremin can teach you to focus yourself and get to know how much your body is in motion.” How much is that? “Even when you don’t think you’re moving, you’re actually always moving. You learn to listen.”
You’d think that an instrument that requires such attunement and sensitivity to nuance would be difficult for adults and near impossible for children. Surprisingly, Dorit says, “the kids are usually better at the theremin than the adults.” She attributes this to their unhindered ability to listen: “It sometimes seems that adults are so set in their ways that to listen to each other and feed off each other is harder for them. … I think we all have to learn to listen better to each other and to what’s around us.”
Photo by Martin Argyroglo for Nanterre-Amandiers
When Dorit talks about introducing small children—4- to 5-year-olds—to the world of the theremin, she speaks to the universal invitation it presents to humans of all ages: “They explore the sonic spectrum and the gestural aspects of the theremin that other instruments may not have. How with their physical motions they can express moods or animal sounds. … It’s not a strict curriculum; it’s more about sparking imagination and letting them express themselves and find their own sound. So it’s really more for them to explore the sonic spectrum and just be creative with it.”
While music instruction often comes in the form of private lessons, Dorit’s approach to theremin classes is different: “We always teach it in a group of ten. So there’s always this nourishing of community and playing together, which then becomes more playful and more fun instantly. We try to feed off that.” This comes in handy since the theremin is notoriously daunting—like the violin, it’s easy to make a sound, but hard to make it sound good. “If you share this experience that’s at times challenging, it connects you instantly and makes it so much easier. For adults or children to stand and play together, listen to each other, be considerate, and do this orchestral thing: that’s as much a lesson or a precious experience right there.” And it’s an experience that people want more of. “Many times I’ve taught a class and then all the students continue to meet by themselves.”
Photo by Martin Argyroglo for Nanterre-Amandiers
Dorit explains how the theremin is an ideal instrument for joyful experimentation. “You invoke your own body to the full extent you can and also there’s this mystery of not touching anything, which naturally feeds into the imagination. So it really just sparks your mind.”
WHAT MUSIC IS
“I think it’s really important to have a very natural relationship to all kinds of sounds—electric or natural acoustic sounds,” says Dorit, “and understand that all sounds can be music.” Which is why she’s all about letting kids groove on the early masters: “I really enjoy having ten four-year-olds with Thereminis playing along to a Brian Eno or Kraftwerk song. I think you just nurture a certain aesthetic that adds to the palette of things they should be exposed to.” But make no mistake; this doesn’t mean playing theremin is all about mellow electronica. “You can also just make a bunch of noise and go really crazy, so it’s your choice.”
“The whole vision is that we give the tools and nurture a new generation of electronic musicians that have a natural access to this kind of sound production, and hopefully in the next generation we’ll see theremin players who really find the true voice and purpose of that instrument and establish it, because it’s still a work in progress.”
BONUS: Want to try the theremin but not sure where to start? Channel the humble bumblebee.
Dorit has this suggestion for those wanting to try out the theremin for the first time: “[Imagine] your hand is a bumblebee and the pitch is a flower you’re trying to land on. So you buzz around with eyes closed and try to land on the flower of the pitch.” If you’re not into bugs, create your own imaginary analog. “You can come up with all these visual images to help you work in the ether-space, because you have nothing to hold onto.”