To Err is Divine

By: Peggy Nelson
January 21, 2010

The theremin is a perfect instrument: it plays all the notes. Not only those we discretely declare, but every tone in between. Such a surfeit anchors it firmly in the uncanny valley — too much is as strange as too little. Which is why it was so easily assigned to B-movie aliens. And Brain Wilson. We’re used to gaps, and steps, as we stutter and leap along our infinite incompleteness.

It does not of course play every sound, just every point along a certain vector, within a set of related vectors controlled by the brightness and waveform dials. Together these describe a dense orange segment, one so sweet with information we can hardly bear it. In fact, sliding up and down the soundlines so saturates the ear that it surrenders, and the horizon is lost, adrift in a plateau of microtones. Soundblindness.

So a robot should be perfect, right? As only one machine can be for another. It’s all mathematics: simply calculate the frequency and program the moves. Here’s “Lev,” with his interpretation of Crazy:

[Lev playing Crazy by Patsy Cline]


But it’s hitting the notes, right? Yes, it is hitting the notes, right. But within its perfection lies a sin of omission — what’s missing is the error.

Or as it’s sometimes called, vibrato. What is vibrato but wiggling around in the general vicinity so that your note ends up with the highest probability rating? And the other notes do not detract; no, somehow they augment, heightening the sweetness with just the right amount of pith. Here’s Clara Rockmore introducing noise into the signal:

[Clara Rockmore playing Le cygne from Le carnaval des animaux by Camille Saint-Saëns (composed 1886)]

Her technique is no accident. Compare Rockmore’s theremusicality to that of a coloratura soprano:

[Maria Callas singing O mio babbino caro from the opera Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini (composed 1918)]

Happily for our mashup era there’s plenty of crossover in alt-mechanickal aetherics. Here’s possibly the most famous of them all, wherein a voice imitates a theremin for a B-movie TV show frequently involving aliens:

[Theme from Star Trek by Alexander Courage, second season remix featuring Loulie Jean Norman (composed 1966)]

Why settle for perfection?


Read-outs, Uncanny

What do you think?

  1. When playing the singing saw, the analog theremin, one introduces vibrato by an ungraceful jiggling of the leg.

  2. Good post, Peggy. I think Baudrillard has theorized this sort of thing: the perfect imitation isn’t charming, it’s creepy. To err is human.

  3. Dr. Blair would agree about creepiness of copies: “[smashing up the radio room with an axe while yelling] A Cell gets out, and it will IMITATE EVERYTHING on the face of the EARTH!”

    Matthew, that’s a cool series. The newer it is, the better it sounds, I think. But the older it is, the better it *looks!

  4. Clara made my hair stand on end. What a gal.

    We booked a lovely theramin player at my wedding, in an English country house and garden. It was a very charming affair. The theramin sounded marvelously modern.

  5. To Suzanne Fischer above: actually the vibrato in a singing saw can be produced in 3 different ways. Shaking one’s leg is only ONE way. And if you watch the ‘Saw Lady'( ) you’ll see how graceful saw playing can be.

    Clara Rockmore’s playing is fantastic!

  6. Either the motors, or the oscillators of the theremin are drifting very inexactly. If it is the Moog, I never noticed the problem when humans play it, supposing they can pitch compensate. The robot version is actually very annoying!

  7. Actually, true vibrato in lyrical/classical singing is obtained by opening and closing one’s throat, producing a slightly different sound, but maintaining pitch. That’s how, say, Giovanni Pergolesi’s _Stabat Mater_ employs vocal harmonies with two female singers in vibrato without ever producing clashing harmonics.

    Most vibrato one hears in popular song, true, is “false” vibrato, produced by “wiggling around the desired note”, as you describe. It’s also how instrumentists do it. If you listen attentively to wobbly singers (say, the much-maligned Susan Boyle) and then to a good pre-wagnerian opera or sacred works like the _Stabat Mater_ mentioned above (there are many Stabat Maters, as you might know. Know which one you’re listening to.), you’ll start to notice the difference. (In Wagner clashing is often the point, and the more popular opera of the 19th century harmonies de-emphasize harmonic acrobatics in favor of emotional arias).

  8. syntaxfree, that is fascinating. I trained as a classical flautist, and so of course the trill with its oscillation of half-tones was my comparison for the thereminic vibrato. I will give a listen to the vocal works you describe and try to hear the difference!

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