Rob Schwimmer – Photo by Michael Weintrob
How do you play an instrument that requires that you never touch it in order to make music come out?
Before you give yourself a headache trying to solve what sounds like a riddle or one of those questions meant to lead you to enlightenment (What is the sound of one hand clapping?), you should know that such an instrument does exist. Invented by Léon Theremin in 1920, the theremin is an instrument that utilizes invisible electromagnetic waves instead of strings or keys to produce its sound.
Theremin combined his studies in physics and music theory when he presented his brand new instrument at a conference of electrotechnicians at St. Petersburg, Russia in 1920. Originally called the heterophone, the device was comprised of a wooden box with a small metal coil protruding out to the left side and a long rod pointing up on the right. The two antennae produced electromagnetic waves that the musician would manipulate using only their hands and never touching the instrument. The result was a haunting, almost eerie sounding melodic noise when used properly.
If this sounds like science fiction to you, you’re almost right in thinking so. The theremin has long been used in scores for science fiction classics like The Thing and The Day the Earth Stood Still.
After its invention, Léon Theremin later went to America to showcase his new creation in 1927, and worked with another musician, Clara Rockmore, who would later become the standard for theremin players for her artistry and expert execution on the instrument. Still, that did not stop RCA from mass-producing the instruments as an instrument for the masses with the tagline:
“Now, for the first time in the history of music, anyone, without musical knowledge or training of any sort; anyone, without even the ability to read notes; without tiresome or extended “practice”; without keys, or bow, or reed, or string, or wind, – without material media of any kind – anyone can make exquisitely beautiful music with nothing but his own two hands!”
Yet, anyone who has tried to play a theremin before will tell you that it is a pretty damn difficult instrument to master. In fact, professional theremin player Robert Schwimmer shared with BreakThru Radio how you might call his love affair with the instrument, at least at the beginning, an unrequited one.
Breakthru Radio: How did you get started playing the theremin?
Rob Schwimmer: The first time I saw a theremin being played, it was on a clip of a TV show of an old woman playing one. I would later learn that she was Clara Rockmore, the famous theremin player. In that moment though, I knew I had heard the sound before, but I had never seen it played. It was so freaky looking, I was like, “Stop the presses, what is this discovery? I must have one!”
My pitch is very good, so I thought I would able to play it pretty easily. So I went on a quest to find one, which was initially a lot harder than I thought because they were no longer being made.
Eventually, I found one in a state of disrepair from one of Bob Moog’s old friends. Moog was the first guy to put a keyboard on a synthesizer and really popularized the synth. When he was young, he was a high school science guy who got into making theremins. So, I bought it for a hundred bucks and wound up sending it back to Moog and he fixed it up for me. So, I get it back and I’m ready to go. I’m thinking “I’m gonna hit it and hit it hard.”
After five minutes I am convinced it has to be a hoax. It sounds monstrously horrible in my hands. But really, that was the beginning of the love affair for me. Sometimes you get and instrument and pick it up really quickly, so you get bored. With the theremin, you realize it’s a real instrument with real intricacies. So, I fell in love despite the fact it was a horrible, terrible thing.
BTR: What impact did other theremin players, like Clara Rockmore, have on your work?
Schwimmer: Anybody that has gotten into the theremin has to run up against Rockmore in their career. It’s like you hit the “Oh my God” wall and realize just how hard it is to play. It’s amazing that a human can actually do this. So anybody who is serious about the theremin, looking to play any kind of melody, looks to her.
What’s weird about the theremin is normally you can say that there are many to have revolutionized the instrument, but in the evolution of instruments, it is a very young instrument. You look at this one person, Clara Rockmore, and the instrument’s tradition goes right to her in that she carved the technique of playing this instrument basically from square one.
There’s also Samuel J Hoffman, who played the theremin for movies like The Day The Earth Stood Still. He had this psycho fast vibrato to his style.
BTR: What are other musical influences for you, outside of other theremin players?
Schwimmer: You bet, the theremin is a terrible first instrument, and it is not mine. I would not recommend it to anyone as their first instrument! You’ve got to learn the music first. I’ve been playing piano since 3 years old. I also listened to a lot of classical music, and grew up on the Beatles, Hendrix, and every which kind of great music.
BTR: What was it like touring with Simon and Garfunkel and how did that come about?
Schwimmer: I’m in a comedy group, The Polygraph Lounge, and my partner wound up in Paul Simon’s Band. We were playing at Joe’s Pub and Paul came and sat with us. We had this one bit where we taught people to play the “nose flutes,” and Paul came to sing “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” He changed the lyrics, saying, “The problem is all inside your nose, she said to me…”
We had a really good time and then the Simon and Garfunkel reuniting thing happened, so Paul contacted me. He had seen me play theremin with the group and asked me to come on tour to play piano and theremin.
BTR: During the tour’s performance of “The Boxer”, you played a solo on the theremin?
Schwimmer: I can’t remember if it was my idea or Paul’s, so I’ll go ahead and say it was Paul’s idea! …Oh man, it was a trip. You know, it’s every kid’s dream to be up on the jumbotron playing theremin. In 2004, the last concert of the tour was at the Coliseum in Rome. It was the 2nd full moon of the month, literally a blue moon, and 600,000 people were there to see the concert. I remember being very well aware that I was introducing and representing the theremin to that audience.
BTR: So what is next for you in you musical career?
Schwimmer: This month, I’m playing with an orchestra at the Crested Butte Musical in Colorado. I was asked to play “Rhapsody in Blue” on the piano, so including that, I’ll play two pieces on the piano and two on the theremin with the orchestra. One of the pieces I really love to play on the theremin is the music from the love scene from the movie Vertigo while accompanied with an orchestra. I like to do it because I figured Hitchcock forgot to put the theremin in there.
For more information about Rob Schwimmer, also known as “Carlos Antenna” by his son, check out his site at www.robschwimmer.com.
Written by: Mary Kate Polanin