SHERIDAN — Musical instruments come in all shapes, sizes and colors. The variations are nearly endless, but most people know a musical instrument when they see one.
That may not be the case for the theremin. At first glance, it might be mistaken for a radio or speaker of some sort. It is one of the more unique instruments in existence.
The theremin harnesses a person’s movements to make sounds. There are no keys or strings to play; a person stands close to the instrument and moves his or her hands and fingers through the air to create music.
A close relative of the theremin, the theremini, was on display in Sheridan County Thursday and Friday, courtesy of world-class theremin player and composer Dorit Chrysler. She visited Tongue River High School and Sheridan College Thursday and performed Friday night at the Whitney Center for the Arts. Chrysler is the founder of the New York Theremin Society, teaches at a music school in Paris and has performed with bands like The Strokes and Echo & The Bunnymen.
“I produce the sound,” Chrysler said. “In reality, I’m really the instrument and I’m really the conductor. The theremin provides the electromagnetic fields.”
Two electromagnetic fields surround the instrument and are controlled by a vertical antenna for pitch and horizontal antenna for volume. The closer one’s hand gets to the vertical antenna, the higher the pitch. The closer one’s hand gets to the horizontal antenna, the quieter the volume.
More local students will have the opportunity to learn the instrument going forward. Sheridan College music and music technology coordinator Chris Erickson received a faculty opportunity grant to purchase five thereminis a few weeks ago at a total cost of about $1,500. Erickson has taught his music technology students a little bit and said they’ve already made progress in a few weeks.
Thereminis are relatively easy to play, while an etherwave theremin — which Sheridan College bought about five years ago — is extremely difficult to learn. One student did a whole semester of independent study on the etherwave theremin and only reached the point where she could play a few simple melodies with piano accompaniment.
Erickson struggled with the etherwave theremin as well.
“Having been a classically-trained musician with three degrees in music, to try to play a major scale on that thing was the most humiliating experience of my life,” Erickson said. “I thought, ‘There’s much to be learned in this world.’”
Leon Theremin invented the instrument in Russia and premiered it in New York City in 1927. The theremin was the first instrument to operate on electricity and — as Erickson can attest — is considered one of the more difficult instruments to learn because it responds to the slightest body movement.
“Not many other instruments can sound so terrible when you can play them,” Chrysler said. “It’s easy to produce some very tortured sounds.”
The theremin has been used in cinema dating back to the 1940s, mainly for the sounds of psychosis or extraterrestrial events like the landing of a UFO. The instrument produces haunting music yet has an enchanting, hypnotic sound to it.
“It can be very lyrical,” Chrysler said. “It has a really delicate, dynamic range that not many other electric instruments have … There are a lot of different approaches and I think it really hasn’t found it’s true voice yet.”
Chrysler became a theremin player by happenstance. Growing up in Austria, she played the flute and piano as a child and also sang in an opera choir. Chrysler then rebelled against her classical training and moved to New York to start a rock band.
Along the way, Chrysler bought a theremin. While producing music in her home, she would take breaks and occasionally play the theremin. Initially, she didn’t take the instrument seriously, but she eventually became more and more interested. The instrument was newer and existed in a gray zone of music history, which appealed to her.
“There are really no rules about it,” Chrysler said. “With this I could really go on my own journey. I could really find my own style mixing all these different, contrasting backgrounds.”
Chrysler said it is best to play the instrument with her eyes closed to truly be in tune with the sound variations.
“It’s kind of like pulling invisible strings in snail tempo or like walking stairs,” Chrysler said. “You find the pitch and create this invisible platform. Once you rest that and really find the note, you step onto the next.”
Thanks to the recent grant, Sheridan College students are already taking steps on their way to learning the distinct instrument.