Know Your Nerdstruments: The Theremin

Last Saturday, I wandered into Barbès in Brooklyn for the first time to see an old friend named Mark Snyder perform a set of bizarrely beautiful ambient compositions involving a clarinet, a tuba, an accordion, a laptop, and a video projector. When Mark was finished, we refreshed our pints and stuck around for the next act, a popular duo called One Ring Zero. I must have been the only one in the bar who hadn’t heard of them before, because within moments, the cozy back room was packed with a standing-room crowd of cute Brooklyn girls in thrift-shop chic and shaggy-haired guys wearing thick-framed glasses singing along to the music. The band tore through an enjoyable set and the crowd clearly loved them. They had the look: glasses, fedora, neckties. They had the ironic lit-rock lyrics, provided by popular writers like Paul Auster, Dave Eggers, and Margaret Atwood. But most of all, they had the instruments: claviola, accordion, and notably, the theremin, the nerdiest instrument in contemporary music.

Nerd rock is nothing new, dating back to Gen X heroes They Might Be Giants, Ben Folds Five, Weezer, and countless others, and if ORZ (as they’re known) become the genre’s standard bearers, more power to them. But their use of the theremin was probably the least surprising part of the set. Looking around at the NPR donor base in the room (myself included), I shook my head as the cover was lifted from the shiny instrument. “A theremin,” I thought. “Of course.”

The theremin is a bizarre electronic instrument invented by a Russian professor in 1928 that’s played by holding and moving the hands close to it without touching it in order to manipulate an electrostatic field. Its sound is usually described as “eerie” and “haunting,” but no musician outside the former Soviet Union or Radiohead uses it for its sound. It’s a novelty instrument, more science fair than first chair, and the only thing that could make it nerdier would be a kazoo accompaniment (idea!). In short, it’s all but impossible to play without irony, but that’s fine when irony sells so well.

Think about the last time you’ve heard a theremin. On Kutiman’s epic mash-up, The Mother of All Funk Chords? From indie darling Bright Eyes, or electronic duo Goldfrapp? Would these artists use the same sound if it was produced by a simple synthesizer or laptop computer? Probably not, because that would take away the novelty value of the instrument. And more importantly, it wouldn’t impress the listening classes with the fact that these artists are so dedicated to their craft that they made the effort to learn how to play a totally obscure instrument. (To their credit, ORZ definitely knew how to play the theremin.)

Perhaps the greatest example of modern theremin artistry can be seen on the trippy kids’ show Yo Gabba Gabba!, where a gregarious Asian man named Soko, wearing a white jacket and dark glasses, demonstrates the theremin with a flawless rendition of Brahms’s Lullaby. The song is presented in a segment entitled Cool Tricks. I can’t think of a more appropriate category to file it under.