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Monday, August 16, 2004

August 16, 2004

Sunday night at the Compo-Improv. - Theramin night at the Eyedrum.

It's a privilege to attend such an event at such a venue in the Southeast. Where else around here can you kick back with pals seeking a strain of old-style avant-garde on a Sunday night, pop open a Pabst Blue Ribbon or a Foster's, and be regaled with the sound that helped define the horror and sci-fi flick soundtrack for years? A night of special effects for the ears isn't to be taken for granted. Last night the occasion was certainly right for special effects, since the Eyedrum honored the 108th birthday of inventor Leon Theramin with performances by several owners of the instruments. I feel kinda bad saying the evening was mostly about the expediency of the machine, but anyone who was there will likely admit that most of the players did their best to level the musical interaction to pure, unfelt sound stuff.

The best visual effects were from a short film by Mary Ross, who filmed her hubby Eric Ross at a Raleigh, NC museum, which another institution not to be taken for granted. Eric played a guitar outfitted with a theramin, and odd electronic bits, collected around him as if they were toys he was trying to sell. He sang / ranted over the maelstrom, and played brief interjections that sounded like the guitar synthesizer of Terjye Rypdal being doubled by a carillion. Most cool.

The second best visual was a guy who kneeled at the back of the performance space to work an 'optical theramin'. He played it with lit matches. His performance had the smell of gimmickry, and left that smell for moments after his finale. The thing is I just can't remember much of what he played.

That was true for the whole evening. Again and again, permutations of the same small group of theramin enthsiasts just stared intently at the instrument's electromagnetic 'wand' and made hand gestures. Who could blame 'em? Few instuments require such theatricality of gesture. It was all pretty humorless, despite all the synthetic flocks of seagulls and the horror movie noises and the horror movie soundtrack from James Whales' 'Frankenstein'. Seems like one of them could've
flipped off the wand, or shot their fist up until cut off by their other hand in the crook of their arms.

One time in the whole evening, a guy played a recognizable melody, and it wasn't 'Good Vibrations' either - the Star Trek theme, curiously opening with those first four creepy notes from the Night Gallery theme (both by the late Jerry Goldsmith). Too bad that some more recognizable melodies weren't tried. Every theramin player acknowledges the difficulty of both playing the thing and explaining how it works, but the pre-show music featured an acoustic piano tapping some romantic-era changes out beneath a surprisingly operatic alto, produced by a theramin. I didn't expect syncopated rhythm, y'know, but the musical input seemed as random as if the theramins had been randomly installed as car alarms and a group of kids were encouraged to chase each other around and jump up and down near the cars. Now that might've been pretty funny.

Following the 'Star Trek' cover, however, another guy made a sharp stab as something that at least tried to suggest structure. The man the MC called Zachary came up and told the audience 'if you recognize this piece....get a life!!'. With an intro like that, how wrong could he go? However, I never did recognize Zachary's piece, which exempts me from his requirement to get a life. So woohoo! Right on!

Seriously - Zachary started off on a small theramin made of green plastic, setting a sound effect only describable as 'waadadubwaadadubwaadadub' as a tonal center and - I guess - a rhythm source, then used a second theramin to conjure some nice droning textures that frequently lapsed into some sort of harmony, just barely enough that I actually would've taken this particular piece home and played it after 1 a.m. At the right volume (not necessarily a low volume) it would've made a nice fit with the steel cello grind of sculptor Robert Rutman's CD 'Music To Sleep By' (Tresor Records, 1997). This enthusiastic closing would mean that Zachary's compo-improv was a tonic.
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