Tonal Ambition

Brian Roettinger and Martha Read Spell It Out

First called the Thereminvox, the theremin was invented by Russian scientist Lev Sergeivich Theremin in 1919. It is the first electronic musical instrument and is operated not by physical contact but via hand motions in the air around two metal antennae. One hand controls pitch and the other volume with movements reminiscent of Tom Cruise’s in Minority Report. To play it well requires precision as mastered by Clara Rockmore who worked out a system of ‘aerial fingering’: in actions that resemble knitting or fidgeting, specific finger positions alter the sound quickly and in ways that can be repeated. Rockmore brought out in the instrument vibrato tones to rival the expressivity of the violin and other stringed instruments, which share the Theremin’s ability to express the full tonal range, not just conventional notes.

Vladimir Lenin loved the theremin when shown it in 1922 (and wasn’t at all bad at playing it according to Theremin): Communism, he said, was Socialism plus Electrification. He took lessons and sent the young inventor around the world to promote it. Theremin was living in Manhattan with his dancer wife when–in a turn of events that in a film version might have been accompanied by a theremin portamento–he was allegedly abducted by the KGB and returned to the Soviet Union where he was imprisoned for seven years. He then took a job with the KGB cleaning up recordings that were hard to decipher and invented the Soviet bug, whose importance Stalin so appreciated that he made sure Theremin was given the first level Stalin Award, the most prestigious prize in the country at that time. The inventor then spent ten years at the Moscow Conservatory of Music teaching and making theremins, electronic cellos and terpsitones (a variation of the theremin whereby sound is created by dancing on a metal plate). After he spoke to a New York Times journalist, however, he was fired and his instruments were axed to pieces.

Meanwhile in the West, the theremin was launching electronic music via Moog. The Beach Boys used it in Good Vibrations. Jimmy Page played it in Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love, and it featured in music by Simon and Garfunkel, Supergrass, Marilyn Manson, and Goldfrapp. The instrument’s main significance was realized with its adoption by makers of horror and science fiction films between the 1940s and 1960s. Lending itself well to rapidly shifting keys, vibrato, and gliding shifts of pitch, it was the perfect expression of sudden loss of control or consciousness, of the intrusion of the alien into everyday life, and of impending narrative shifts into the inexplicable. Its position as a signifier of the uncanny was cemented by such films as Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). It strikes up during a Simpsons episode as Homer is about to go to the attic to investigate the presence of ghosts: in a brilliant piece of literalism, he complains: ‘It’s one thing for ghosts to terrorise my children, but quite another for them to play my theremin!’

Brian Roettinger has modified the theremin into an instrument of non-musical notation. Any musical instrument could be used to represent letters of the alphabet (one could imagine a morse code-like adaptation of say, the piano, to represent words, and how that might sound). This, however, is not a code whereby a short note followed by two long ones denotes, say, a ‘D’. Instead, he has devised a system based directly on the form of individual letters and their anatomy as well as the way they sound when drawn in the air next to the theremin. Reversing (and perverting) the order of things whereby the spoken word came first followed by the written word, here the written word is, as it were, given a voice – returning to the theremin the ‘vox’ that was once removed and making of it electronic vocal chords with the hands acting as the mouth. It is an adaptation both rational in its conflation of the visual with the aural and absurd given the existence of speech as an effective system of communication.

The theremin alphabet would be hard, but not impossible, to learn. I like to imagine it entering into common use as a language in which pitch alone produces meaning. If we all spoke theremin learning to read and write would become one and the same effort, while bad spellers would be ‘outed’ as they spoke, just as poor grammar is revealed in conventional speech. Or perhaps aching arms would make correct spelling a thing of the past; people might tire of the effort of the o, g and h in ‘enough’ and instead write ‘enuf!’. And perhaps other parts of the body would be used to communicate via the theremin in order to free up people’s hands as they communicated. Could lip movements be used to create a reaction, producing an ersatz-speech? And instead of carrying around theremins people might turn instead to mimicking its sound with their voices or whistling. It could sound something like a birdsong. It would take a while to say anything of length and mundane statements, such as ‘pass the salt’, might at first sound like intense horror movie soundtracks until those connotations had been erased by common usage. For a while the two systems of signification –/theremin as message vs. theremin as massage –/would compete. One would have to erase the other, for they could not coexist and horror film soundtracks would have to become mundane if the language were to succeed. Or to denote eeriness might a new letter enter the theremin alphabet, one that looked like the graph of a rapidly rising then rapidly fluctuating stock price? New letters shapes might arise as a system of aural hieroglyphs.

And what would theremin soundtracks to postwar horror movies look if written down? Did the KGB miss the opportunity lost for a secret code in which B-movies could have become a means of communicating cold war secrets? Perhaps they did, and the reason the KGB abducted the inventor was to interpret for them the codes of their secret agents, operating in Hollywood under the guise of soundtrack composers. Perhaps The Day the Earth Stood Still, made at the height of the Cold War and steeped in the paranoia of the era, contains hidden messages in the theremin vibratos and glissandos of its soundtrack. Like any language, theremin would evolve. First would come a moment similar to the point at which a child starts to inflect and modulate read-out-loud sentences, rather than enunciating each word as a separate entity. What started as a rational code would become through use emotive and expressive. The musical instrument, first deprived of musicality, could then take on the musicality of language.

The theremin language would of course retain linguistic differences. One would have to learn English before being able to understand theremin-English. And theremin-English would sound very different from theremin-French or theremin-Italian and extremely different from theremin-Chinese. Consonant-dense German would have more rapid changes in pitch than vowel-rich French, while Chinese might sound clipped. Would those sounds be analogous to the sounds of conventionally spoken languages? Would the theremin alphabet reveal hitherto unknown affinities between spoken and written language? Would accents evolve? Perhaps the socially aspiring might add a flourish here and there, an ‘ear’ on a ‘g’ could indicate an especially refined ear, the emphasis of certain strokes over others could parallel the varied thicknesses of calligraphy. The aural zip of serifed words might indicate greater authority and officialdom, while sans serif might indicate a more democratic, popular way of communicating. And instead of classifying letters according to the movements of the mouth necessary to form them in conventional speech (such as sibilant or nasal), phonetics would chime instead with typography, with categories relating to the descenders and ascenders, bowls or letter heights.

Then, surely, the shape of letters would change to indicate emphasis: if emphasizing the word ‘so’, the bowl of the ‘o’ would, one imagines, get bigger. I imagine the apex of the A in ‘Apple’ being taller than in the English ‘Another’. The ‘d’ in ‘dammit!’ would have a taller ascender than the ‘d’ in, say, ‘body’. Or would the theremin language defer from text by simply using the slant of an italic or a final swoop of an under lining to provide emphasis?

Slang might develop to shorten the lengthy 135 process of spelling each letter. I imagine a ‘th’ becoming a single sound/gesture and a new phonetic alphabet of sorts being developed. The character analysis of handwriting could be applied to the theremin alphabet with shorter ascenders and descenders indicating deadpan delivery and greater tonal range revealing a more dramatic character. And songs could be invented using the theremin for both lyrics and music, a swirling duet between the instrument’s musical and linguistic applications.

Then, in a final inversion, the theremin language might infect the written language. The length of the arm of a capital ‘T’ or cross-stroke on a lower-case ‘t’ would surely come to depend on its emphasis. ‘D’s would become shorter in some positions, longer in others. The lilting of Italian would become visible, like typographic sound waves, while more even-keeled languages might find the ascenders and descenders of their letters shrinking closer to the ‘x-height.’ Could such a typography become codified for typing purposes? Perhaps instead of turning a letter bold or italic, another type of emphasis would lengthen a letter’s arm or ascender?

Of course given our faculty for speech, it is highly unlikely that theremin languages will catch on. The idea will remain, but by giving the theremin a useless purpose Brian Roettinger followed John Cage’s recommendation, quoted in McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage, that ‘the highest purpose is to have no purpose at all.’







Brian Roettinger's Website
Martha Read's Website