A Luminous Halo

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." --Virginia Woolf

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Location: Springfield, Massachusetts, United States

Smith ’69, Purdue ’75. Anarchist; agnostic. Writer. Steward of the Pascal Emory house, an 1871 Second-Empire Victorian; of Sylvie, a 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SL; and of Taz, a purebred Cockador who sets the standard for her breed. Happy enough for the present in Massachusetts, but always looking East.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Word of the Day: Theremin

A theremin is a musical instrument, unusual in that you don't have to touch it in order to play it. It was invented in 1919 by Russian physicist/musician Lev Sergeivich Termen (a.k.a. Léon Theremin). Although a skilled thereminist can play traditional melodies with it, it's most famous for the production of those eerie sounds in science fiction and horror movies.

You can hear the theremin in the soundtracks of such productions as The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Lost Weekend, or My Favorite Martian. (That was the theremin you heard every time Uncle Martin levitated.) The Rolling Stones used it, Simon and Garfunkel used it, Led Zeppelin used it. Also a couple of my very favorite bands: The Pixies and The Mars Volta.

The theremin has two antennae. One controls pitch and the other, volume. Waving your hands around the antennae creates the sound. In theory it's easy; in practice, extremely difficult. Hand movements must be very exact, while the rest of the body remains absolutely still.

The theremin is the nerd instrument par excellence, more fun to build than a ham radio. In the 1950s, Robert Moog built one while he was a student at the Bronx High School of Science. The rest is history.

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