Led Zeppelin used one on "A Whole Lotta Love." Elvis Costello and the Imposters use one. Even Marilyn Manson may have used one. What is this thing? Imagine, if you will, an instrument that is so unique you don't even have to touch it to make music. The theremin is an instrument that works on high frequency radio waves. The mere movement of your hands around two antennas creates the sounds. And only the most talented can create music. One who is among them, world-renowned thereminist Pamelia Kurstin, will be in town this month to perform her brand of music.
Russian physicist Lev Termin (later changed to Leon Theremin) invented the instrument in 1919. Older models resemble old-fashioned radios with two antennas jutting out the sides, while newer models are smaller black boxes with the same antennas. Each antenna serves a purpose: One controls pitch while the other controls volume. The precise movement and skill necessary to play make the instrument extremely difficult to master. Without this mastery, the only noise that emanates from the theremin roughly resembles a dying bobcat. In other words, it doesn't sound pretty.
In the 1950s and the 1960s, the theremin was primarily used to make mood music for movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still and It Came From Outer Space. The instrument had a brief revival in the 1970s with bands like Led Zeppelin and Uriah Heep who used it for sound effects. However, there have been theremin players of note, specifically Clara Rockmore (a Russian musical prodigy) and Lydia Kavina (the great niece of Leon Theremin), who have lifted the theremin to levels beyond that of a mere novelty act. Subsequently, the theremin is enjoying a new level of respect in the world of modern music.
Pamelia Kurstin has been playing the theremin for nearly nine years. She is considered one of the world's most talented thereminists and performs solo, as well as with the New York-based band, Barbez. She has also worked with noted artists Matthew Sweet, Cibo Mato, David Byrne and the Indigo Girls. A self-taught musician, Kurstin also plays piano, cello, viola, upright bass and the flute. On the theremin, she performs with such virtuosity that Clara Rockmore proclaimed Kurstin would be her greatest successor. Her style and technique are unique. Her hand movements resemble someone playing an upright bass while her feet work looping pedals to create layers of sound that are melodic and orchestral. In accordance with her progressive style, she currently uses a newer more portable version of the theremin made by Robert Moog (www.moogmusic.com). It is "easier to carry to gigs and to take on the subway. Before, I could only carry my pedals," she laughs.
A previous knowledge of music is not truly necessary to play the theremin, according to Kurstin; the ears are the most important because this instrument is not like any other. When asked how and why she chose the instrument, she states, "I just don't know, I saw that documentary and it seemed interesting and different." The documentary to which Pamelia refers is a 1993 film, produced by Steven M. Martin, titled Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey. The film studies the history of the theremin and includes interviews with Leon Theremin, as well as music legends Robert Moog, Todd Rundgren and Brian Wilson.
Although Kurstin's style focuses more on creating melodies, she bears no grudge against those who play the theremin only to create sound effects. To her, there are many interesting ideas and many ways to use the theremin; everyone's approach is unique. For Kurstin, inspiration just happens. "I just hope I have something to record on when it does." As a full-time musician these days, she is working on a solo CD for Tzadic records, as well as working on an upcoming CD with Barbez, an eclectic group of New York musicians that Kurstin joined forces with about four years ago. Their sound is best described as orchestral/punk and definitely worth checking out at their Web site www.barbez.com. When asked if she prefers being center stage or being part of a band, Kurstin replies, "I have no preference really; both are great experiences." In solo performances, Kurstin likes to improvise and see where the set takes her that's in contrast to performing with Barbez, where the music is written with minimal improvisation on her part.
Currently, because of the looks and the size of most theremins, they can be "distracting" on stage, but in the next five to10 years, Kurstin believes the theremin will be more common on the music scene. There is no question about Kurstin's future in music: she has carved out a unique niche that will undoubtedly take her far. When asked whom she would most like to perform with in the future, she replies, "David Bowie." Now that would be cool.
Still curious about what the "rollerskating, bird-punching" part means? You'll have to go to Kurstin's Web site (www.pameliakurstin.com) to find out.
August 26, 7 p.m., $5 all ages, 3 Shapes Aikido, 1512 N. 10th St. August 27, 7 p.m., Sockeye Grill and Brewery, 3019 N. Cole. August 28, 9 p.m., $3, Neurolux, 111 N. 11th St.