Airheads unite

Bluesman Robert Pete Williams once declared that his inspiration for playing was all around, claiming the music itself was in the air. In Asheville this week, people will actually be playing the air itself, using the unique instrument the theremin.

EtherMusic 2005 runs August 4-7, including two public concerts on Friday and Saturday. Attendees of this so-billed “international” festival, presented by the Orange Peel and sponsored by Moog Music, will enjoy workshops and virtuoso performances by many of the world’s leading theremin experts.

Featured guests include Pamelia Kurstin, who plays the instrument in the difficult “walking bass” style with novelty rockers Barbez; Lydia Kavina, a world-class Russian classical performer and the protege and great niece of the instrument’s inventor, Leon Theremin; German artist Barbara Buchholz; and Armenian-American thereminist Armen Ra.

It’s a lineup well-suited to any global metropolis — but Asheville, after all, is where Dr. Robert Moog, electronic music pioneer and developer of the most common form of theremin in use today, and his company Moog Music, make their home. During the festival, attendees will also get a behind-the-scenes look at the Moog factory, truly a magical place for fans of modern music and its elusive circuitry.

Harder than the guitar

The theremin has proven an elastic musical device, capable of classical music’s precision and the interpretations of contemporary songs, yet for many, it remains shrouded in mystery.

To the inexperienced, the theremin looks like a set of antennas attached to a countertop. The two rods protrude from the base — one controlling pitch, the other volume. When the player’s hand approaches the vertical antenna, the pitch gets higher; approaching the horizontal antenna makes the volume softer. The effect is similar to a person’s movements in a room affecting TV or radio reception.

Since no physical contact is made with the instrument, playing the theremin often requires precise skill and perfect pitch.

Such a nontraditional, difficult device should have gone the way of the dinosaur — but the theremin remains cultishly popular for the eerie purr of its “woo” tones and the fascinatingly tricky way it is played. Mountain Xpress heard from a chorus of voices anticipating the Asheville celebration, including New York drag queen Armen Ra, who fine-tuned her theremin experience in East Village bars and in punk club CBGB — but who is also a skilled classical musician.

After seeing televised performance footage of the late theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore, “I was totally shocked and amazed at her immense beauty and grace,” says Ra. “I remember being so excited and frightened, [thinking] that such an instrument would never be available now.” Ra performs Friday night at the Orange Peel in a classical set including pieces by Komitas, Bizet and Chopin.

Some theremin devotees find their entryway through rock, like festival attendee Jason Barile of Durham, the creator of Theremin World, one of the leading Web communities devoted to the instrument. “I saw my first theremin when Pere Ubu was opening for They Might Be Giants at Vanderbilt University around 1994,” he recalls. “The lead singer held his theremin out over the front row of the audience so we could play it during the show. I was an electrical-engineering student at the time, and a big fan of electronic music, so I was instantly hooked.

“I think it was definitely the idea of the theremin more than the sound that first grabbed me,” Barile admits. After his fascination grew, he discovered the documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, which will be screened at the EtherMusic festival Saturday night. Barile’s sparking interest coincided with a newfound curiosity from many. “Over time, [our] Web site grew in popularity as more and more people started learning about theremins and more bands started using them. The original bands list had about seven bands, and I think we have over 700 listed today.”

Local artist Chris Tanfield discovered the instrument as a student at UNCA. “When I saw that you play it without touching, and heard the continuous range of pitches from lowest to highest, that’s when I realized its potential,” he says. “Being a fan of psychedelic music, I saw it as the ultimate psychedelic mind-melter.”

Tanfield soon met Dr. Moog, and started a job at the Moog factory building theremins and representing the company. He has used theremin in his rock band the Royal We, once employing its soaring majesty for the “Star Spangled Banner” at an Asheville Tourists baseball game. Angelo Moore, of ska-punk legends Fishbone, is his favorite player. “When I worked at Moog’s factory, we repaired Angelo’s theremin quite a few times because he likes to play rough,” Tanfield reveals. “He showed me that the theremin can be fun and energetic, not just old and academic.”

EtherMusic draws attention to this evocative machine, a device born in the shimmering light of the electronic music age’s dawn. The genre’s brightest luminary, Asheville’s own Robert Moog, will be on the minds of festivalgoers this weekend. Moog fell ill with cancer earlier this year, and is in treatment at home — but it will be impossible to ignore his presence. The recent documentary film Moog, showing the man behind the music, will be screened Friday afternoon.

One of only a handful of other theremin festivals around the world (the odd outcropping of open-mic contests, like a recent event held in Chapel Hill, notwithstanding), EtherMusic in Asheville is both an international production and some home cooking. The distinct local flavor comes from the multi-hued circuits, looking like so much hard candy, over at the Moog factory, where attendees will marvel at the building of theremins in a workshop that rivals Willy Wonka’s for pure wonderment.

Despite the instrument’s newfound celebrity, its adherents will likely always run to the eccentric. Armen Ra, a self-described “sacred oracle-whore of Babylon-Delphi” and “ferocious flapper,” among other glamorous appellations, remarks: “I am looking forward to meeting other players and enthusiasts [in Asheville], and finally not having to explain what I am doing.”

[Chris Toenes is a writer based in Chapel Hill. He previously reviewed the Moog documentary film for Mountain Xpress.]

EtherMusic 2005: A Celebration of the Theremin happens Thursday, Aug. 4 through Sunday, Aug. 7 at the Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.). See for a complete list of events (including workshops) and registration information. Events open to the public are: “An International Theremin Concert,” with Armen Ra and Lydia Kavina, at 8:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 5. Tickets are $12. “A Theremin Film Festival and Concert,” featuring screenings of Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey and The Day the Earth Stood Still, starts at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 6. Music by Barbez (featuring Pamelia Kurstin) begins at 11 p.m. $8. 225-5851.

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