The mind-bending sounds of the theremin

The Audiophiliac's remarkable encounter with newly created versions of the first electronic instrument, the theremin; space-age sounds abound!

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
2 min read
Some of the Theremins at the Judith Charles Gallery show Francis Dzikowski/Esto

Leon Theremin invented the world's first electronic instrument in 1920, and while it never achieved widespread popularity, the theremin has been used in movie soundtracks, avant-garde classical music, and pop. The theremin is played without physical contact; the musician moves his or her hands near two metal antennas to change pitch, volume, and tone.

Dorit Chrysler performing at the Judith Charles Gallery. Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Allen Farmelo is a record producer and engineer, and he curated the "Odd Harmonics" show at the Judith Charles Gallery in New York City. "Odd Harmonics" also featured performances by Mikael Jorgensen (Wilco), German classical theremin virtuoso Carolina Eyck, performance artist Christen Clifford, and others. Francois Chambard built the 12 custom theremins in the gallery show. They're stunning works of art, but they're all working theremins. Farmelo is excited by the show's "collision" of art, sculpture, tech, music, painting, and performance. The gallery has a few video theremin performances, and visitors can try their hand playing some of the Theremins on display.

I heard Dorit Chrysler play at the gallery on Friday night, and she was amazing. At first blush the theremin can sound a little unearthly, listen more, and you'll know it's unlike any acoustic instrument, but it can match a human voice in its expressiveness. It's ethereal, fluid, and mesmerizing.

Farmelo is trying to redefine what "high fidelity" means in a 21st century context, and the recordings for his label, Butterscotch Records, strive to capture the sound of live performances in a beautiful way. Farmelo wants to deliver "a three-dimensional holographic sonic experience." Butterscotch LPs are exquisitely mastered by Alex DeTurk, and the LPs feature different mixes than the digital versions of the music.

"Odd Harmonics" at the Judith Charles Gallery runs through November 16, but the final live performance at the gallery is scheduled for Sunday at 11 a.m. ET.