Hands Off – world’s largest gathering of theremins

August 1, 2007 at 12:59 am (electronic music, theremin)

Hands Off UK theremin symposium, Bushey, July 30th 2007. Beatrix Ward-Fernandez Trio

Health warning: this post is proudly geeky and concerns one of my more unusual musical strings to the bow: theremin playing.

July 29th, I had the bizarre privilege of being part of a unique event – the world’s largest gathering of thereminists (we believe). Hands Off! took place from July 27-29th in the quaint rural retreat of Purcell School of Music in Bushey, Hertfordshire as a symposium for theremin players and lovers.

I arrived for the concert and farewell dinner and had obviously missed most of the action which included over 40 delegates from around the world (New York, Los Angeles, Austria, Switzerland and Germany all represented) learning how to improvise, play classical theremin, and exchange gossip, tips and tricks on making and playing. (An old car sticker: ‘thereminists do it with no hands’ springs to mine…)

Yes, I lose my cool, this was a Geekfest indeed. I even wore my ‘theremin addict’ T-shirt by Stoney (after a few drinks). An almost unimaginable collection of theremin families, teen proteges, men of a certain age (many wearing bow ties) and more facial hair and Etherwave Pros than Moog Music‘s stockroom.

There was an intriguing long afternoon concert with just about every kind of music represented:

First up, John Bernhardt from The Lothars (famed for playing theremin on a US beer commercial), a long haul visitor from Boston, was highly entertaining with his ‘songs you shouldn’t play on a theremin’ set – ‘Video Killed The Radio Star‘ (check it out on YouTube) complete with excellent facial ‘dancing’ (you can’t move when you play theremin) was a treat. One of the song’s writers (a keen thereminist) was in the house (alongside David Vanian from The Damned)wilco

Wilco then rocked out the first experimental set using his sonic hand glove, straight outa Doctor Who and the kind of innovation that the theremin’s inventor Lev Termin (Leon Theremin) would have relished. This photo of Wilco and daughter proves they indoctrinate ’em young into the ether cult in the flat lands of Holland…

The Beatrix Ward-Fernandez Trio played free improvisation. That’s the first time I’ve heard theremin played with tuba.

Spacedog clara 2.0 theremin doll

Spacedog UK
gave us a demonstration of when music meets science and technology, using theremin with Max MSP to trigger video and ‘Clara 2.0’ – a motorised doll that mirrored Sarah’s playing to automate theremin playing. She also played a mean version of ‘Mad World‘ on bells and saw.

The Radio Science Orchestra reminded us to remember the importance of Bob Moog, with the theremin triggering the Moog Voyager for an intriguing version of Dr Who and a world first of the theremin triggering a human voice’s pitch (vocoder style) for Somewhere Over The Rainbow.

radio science orchestra

Chris Conway, thereminChris Conway took us to the tea break (how civilised!) with his own version of celtic-influenced ambient music using loops and layers, texturing up the theremin.

Part two was classical theremin, with duos, trios and a quarter from two up-coming teen theremin proteges – Carolina Eyck (Gemany) and Charles Draper (UK), alongside the great maestro divas Lydia Kavina (Russia) and experimental player Barbara Buchholz (Germany). There was a mix of rare original compositions for theremin from 1930s, classical arrangements and contemporary works for theremin.
theremin trio

The material was really amazing as not only is playing as a theremin ensemble really technically demanding at best, it was incredibly musical – a feat rarely achieved anywhere in the world. Hats off (or hands off) especially to Barbara Bucholz for some truly trippy sonic arrangements of contemporary compositions, and Charles and Carolina for a very cute arrangement of all the theremin ‘cliches’ stars-on-45 street-style – everything from The Swan, Spellbound, Over The Rainbow…. ah, isn’t post-modernism great?

The event culminated in the debut performance of
The UK League of Thereminists – all participants got plugged in – from home made kits through to professional instruments (sadly no vintage RCA theremin in the house) – to have an experimental jam, ranging from a suprisingly accurate imitation of the TT races to a cute round of Frere Jacques (in good tune!).

For various reasons, I couldn’t commit to going beforehand so I didn’t end up playing in the main concert (under my stage name Miss Hypnotique – someone there called me ‘the good and the great of the theremin world’!), which was a shame, but I was delighted to be able to join in the world-record League of Thereminists (Guiness turned it down as an entry – amateurs!) and after-show jam.

There was a photo shoot of all attendees for The Word magazine – can’t wait to see the truly cult-like photo…

BIG THANKS to Gordon Chorlton and his wife Maya for organising this outstanding event, and JD and the many others who made it possible from a seedling vision to a reality.

I think the event revealed quite a few things:

– The diversity of performances and styles was astonishingly, all unite by this strange, intoxicating and frankly weird instrument, prove that the theremin isn’t a one-trick pony.

-The standard of playing has become incredibly dexterous and skilled – it’s not just about hitting the notes anymore or some kooky theatrics, it’s about discovering a diverse musical ecology.

– We still have a long way to go before all this exciting activity becomes truly ‘mainstream’, even in the underground music genres. It has to become truly cool.

For me personally, it’s also raised questions as to how my own playing fits in with all of this. On the one hand, I’m fired up to get back on the wagon and play seriously again. ‘Real life‘ has taken over recently and I’ve got a lot of catch up to do to get back to the diverse repertoire and shows I was doing in 2004/5. On the other, perhaps my role is as pioneer – did the first theremin radio show – now Spellbound, a weekly show, has taken over. Pushed classic theremin onto terrestrial tv, now it’s someone else’s mission to move it on to the next stage.

Theremin has not yet featured predominantly in Babyslave, but I theeink it should do more so in the future, both for dramatic performance and also because the unsettling eeriness suits our style. I feel a little melody coming on…

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