Delve into the fantastical world of the Theremin with our latest The Scoring House album Theremintopia, composed by Dave Hewson. It’s a collection of atmospheric tracks played on the Theremin.
This hypnotic instrument is capable of expressing extreme beauty and emotions. The solo performer is Grégoire Blanc, a brilliant young French performer, who is trailblazing the return of this instrument from obscurity.
Alongside the spooky and mysterious video for ‘Margarita’s Ghost’ (see below) we spoke to composer Dave Hewson and Theremin player and musician Grégoire Blanc about the creative process behind the album, which was created during the lockdown earlier this year.
Dave, what inspired you to write an album that shone the spotlight onto the incredible Theremin instrument?
Dave: ‘Theremintopia’ was inspired by much of the brilliant film music that has been created by composers such as Bernard Hermann, and Ennio Morricone and some 20th-century artists such as Kraftwerk.
I came up with the title ‘Theremintopia’, as a way of depicting a landscape of musical styles featuring the Theremin. I wanted to create an album that featured this amazing instrument in a number of ways from quirky and humorous, to nostalgic filmic and even sensitive, and emotional.
The machine was invented by a young Russian physicist named Lev Sergeevich Termen (known in the West as Leon Theremin). It is a bizarre-looking affair – almost from another planet – a box with valves and two chrome arms. It is an instrument capable of extreme expressive beauty, very hypnotic, and is so interesting to watch being played.
Like the violin, the theremin relies on an excellent ear to settle the pitch and play in tune, with good intonation. However, unlike the violin, the contact for the theremin is just the air – no fretboard, or fingerboard – in fact, no contact at all. It makes it very difficult to play – one hand controlling the dynamics and the other the pitch. A virtuoso will be able to make it sound like a human voice, or a violin – and it is very beautiful.
Were there any specific sounds you wanted to convey?
Dave: One of the most appealing qualities of the theremin is its ability to emulate the human voice, although doing so in its own unique way. Most contemporary samples are very good at helping to create very realistic emulations of real instruments, but the theremin is so far ahead in its expressive sound. I was very interested in exploring the emotional and human quality of this incredibly expressive instrument and to show how versatile it is across so many styles.
Grégoire, how did you get into playing the Theremin?
Grégoire: I started playing the theremin in high school, I was 15 and heard about it thanks to a science lesson. I used to play the cello before and immediately felt at ease with the theremin. It was so expressive and musical; I truly found my voice there. I wanted to dedicate time learning how to play and practised classical music with it.
It has been a year since I started a professional musical career and I try to explore different styles across various projects and collaborations. From classical concerts to film music, composing for theatrical performances, etc. This project for West One Music Group was my first experience in the ‘music for media’ field.
Can you share a few interesting facts about the Theremin and the techniques used to play it?
Grégoire: As Dave mentioned, you just have these two parameters: pitch and volume, both being controlled without touch by interacting with electromagnetic fields. You don’t feel anything when you play, your hands are moving in free space, and the only feedback you get is the sound itself. There is no need to have ‘perfect pitch’, but still, without a very good sense of intervals, it is impossible to play the theremin correctly. You have nothing but your ears to rely on! Over time, theremin players have developed techniques to involve muscle memory; we have finger positions to jump smoothly between intervals, which helps a lot to play precisely.
For me, the real magic of the instrument is beyond its strange look and one-of-a-kind playing technique. What makes it unique is definitely its voice! You could perhaps emulate the sound very easily as it is a basic electronic tone, but you can’t reproduce the phrasing, the articulation, the soul! It is very personal and you really feel the imprint of each performer – vibrato, portamento, etc. It is often considered as the ‘ancestor of all synthesisers’ but in my opinion, it is more like a cousin. A conventional synthesiser offers amazing possibilities to craft timbre but is not expressive – the theremin is just the opposite: you bring life to a raw, pure electronic tone. And this opens doors to so many musical experiments!
How was the creative process of working together with different due to lockdown?
Dave: Fortunately, Greg has a brilliant set-up for recording his theremin – as you can see in the video! L sent him a musical score for each piece, he then performed the pieces in France and sent back the recordings for me to lay into the tracks. It worked a treat!
Grégoire: It was a very funny process, I received the scores and backing tracks and recorded all that home with a click-tempo track. Of course, some pieces would have deserved live performances with other musicians: playing along with sample-based accompaniment can be frustrating, but I like the result very much.
Are there any standout moments?
Dave: When l first heard Greg play ‘Margaritas Ghost’ – it really touched me – particularly as l composed this piece in 1971 – lost until now. The whole project was very inspiring, and I was amazed at the breadth and scale of expression that could be achieved with the theremin. I do hope it intrigues and inspires others too!
Grégoire: It was a joyful project to work on during lockdown. Dave is a very creative composer, he put all this together really fast, working together was a really nice journey!