Thereminimal

A few days ago I had the pleasure of attending the NYU ITP New Instruments for Musical Expression event, in which students perform original music on novel electronic musical instruments that they themselves have invented.

While there was a tremendous variety among the various instruments, one theme in particular seemed to emerge: In the hallowed tradition of the Theremin — perhaps the very first electronic musical instrument, invented in the 1920s by Léon Theremin — many of the students designed their instruments around the idea of a single large sliding control.

In Theremin’s original instrument, the performer’s hand forms part of an oscillating capacitive circuit. As the performer makes subtle adjustments to her hand position, the frequency of oscillation changes over time. The Theremin then transforms this human-modulated signal into an audible musical tone.

The Theremin can make beautiful sounds when properly played, but it is notoriously difficult to operate. Yet its basic mode of operation is easy to adopt: Move your hand position to modulate an electronically generated musical tone.

On the night of the show, I saw students doing this in various ways. One instrument used a single long resistive strip, another contained an infrared optical distance measuring circuit, yet another relied on an ultrasonic distance detector.

In every case, the fundamental act of playing the instrument consisted of moving one’s hand through space. To make music, the musician/inventor would modulate pitch by changing the position of his/her hand over time.

Despite the fact that they used different underlying mechanisms, all of these instruments reminded me a bit of the Theremin. Each was built around the same fundamental idea of forming a melody by moving one’s hand in space to vary pitch. Consequently, the music they made all shared a certain lovely simplicity that I found quite charming.

At some point I turned to the person next to me, and said “I think we are hearing a new musical genre.”

“What’s that?” he asked.

I was ready with my shiny new word. “Thereminimalism!”

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