Strumento Oscuro Virtuosi

I’ve seen Peter Schickele, the Weird Al of classical music, perform PDQ Bach shows several times, and was fortunate enough to meet him at a record signing in Pittsburgh some years ago.  He’s invented a number of odd instruments that he plays as part of the show, though video is quite hard to find.  A few very old clips are available for purchase, but you’ll have to roll the cursor over each one in order to view them.

One of Peter Schickele’s longtime collaborators is Jorge Mester, former music director of the Pasadena Symphony, and several of Schickele’s works have had their world premieres with the orchestra.

The Theremin, invented in the 1920’s by Russian physicist Léon Thermin, has all too often been relegated to producing creepy sounds for 1950’s sci-fi flicks or making horrible noise to augment the music of 90’s hipster bands.  This is due in part to the obscurity of the instrument, it’s interesting electronic sound, and the fact that the player never actually touches the Theremin, instead moving their hands in the proximity of its antennas to vary the pitch and volume.  Because of its novelty, few people have taken the time to actually practice on it and learn to play it as the musical instrument it is.

Clara Rockmore worked with Léon Thermin and toured the world playing this incredible instrument.  Arguably the greatest thereminist who ever lived, she played for over 50 years until her death in 1998 at age 87.

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Early in the video, she’s interviewed while having dinner with synthesizer pioneer Bob Moog, whose company manufactures theremins.  Late in the clip, she plays another song.  She’s so good, you’d swear she’s playing a cello, but it’s actually a series of capacitors and oscillators.

About 10 years ago, I heard an interview with Bob Moog on NPR about the theremin.  I started researching it and eventually obsessing over owning and playing one.  When I started to dream I was playing one, I knew it was time for action.  One of the two electronic instrument dealers in LA who actually stocked Big Briar theremins was, strangely enough, half a block from my office.  Imagine dreaming of buying a theremin for months, only to find out a dozen were sitting on a shelf a few hundred feet away from my desk.  The place was off a back alley in North Hollywood, and I picked one up on my lunch hour.  I don’t know if that place is still there.  Maybe it was never there.  More about my theremin experience in a later post (if anyone is interested).

First in my series of virtuosos who mastered obscure instruments is Emmett Chapman.

This clip not only includes incredibly expressive playing of a then newly-invented instrument, but also illustrates the wit and sophistication of one of my favorite game shows: What’s My Line (the Larry Blyden daytime syndicated version).

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Chapman created the Stick in the 60’s and started manufacturing and selling them in 1974.  Because the strings are tapped, not strummed, one can play two separate lines and chords, like a piano, but  with the sound and style of an electric guitar (or two).  He’s based in LA and still makes them.

Be sure to catch the Fuzzy Logic Boptet around town if you can.  They’re a fantastic jazz combo, and Jim Wright plays a mean touch-style guitar.  (I know it’s a Warr guitar and not a Chapman Stick but they’re both still neat).