Preview: The Theremin Hits Houston

The peculiar electronic instrument enjoys a rare limelight at this year’s Bayou City Music and Film Festival.

By Joe Leydon November 30, 2014 Published in the December 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Bayou City Music and Film Festival
Dec 4–6
$15 per event
14 Pews, 800 Aurora St.

In 1920, Russian engineer and physicist Léon Theremin was trying to build a sonar device when he accidentally discovered an unusual phenomenon. When he waved his hands near metal antennae attached to a speaker, they produced ethereal, otherworldly sounds whose pitch and volume could be controlled solely through hand movements. He moved to the United States and obtained a patent for an electronic device, the theremin (a predecessor to the Moog synthesizer), which the New York Times once called the weirdest of all musical instruments. 

During its heyday in the ’20s and ’30s, the instrument—a rectangular box hooked up to a metal loop and antenna and mounted on a stand—was featured in concerts at Carnegie Hall and several other US venues. After that, the theremin could be heard on the original Star Trek theme song, the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” and in numerous sci-fi movies. (Something about the instrument’s sound just seems to evoke space.) 

But Cressandra Thibodeaux, who runs the Heights-area film-and-performance space known as 14 Pews, wants you to know that there’s more to the theremin. That’s why she’s made it the focus of the second annual Bayou City Music and Film Festival, a three-day event with a lineup including performances by theremin virtuosos Thomas Grillo, Rob Schwimmer, Dorit Chrysler, and Armen Ra, the last of whom is the subject of a documentary screening at the fest. 

“The first hundred or so times I heard someone play the theremin, I didn’t know what it was,” Thibodeaux says. “I’d just be listening to a song on the radio, or hearing the soundtrack of a movie or TV show, but I had no idea what I was listening to.” 

Also at the festival is Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness, a cult-favorite Japanese silent film from 1926 screened with live musical accompaniment by an ensemble featuring thereminist Dok Gregory. And those hankering to try their hands at the instrument can even take a free theremin lesson on Dec. 6. 

“Houston has one of the best experimental music scenes in the country, and I want to let people know this,” Thibodeaux says. “Unfortunately, we mostly hear about New York City, Brooklyn, and San Francisco. So I figure bringing in some of the most respected theremin players, and introducing them to Houston and other musicians, lets them know we’re in the game too.”

While organizing the festival, Thibodeaux caught the theremin bug herself. “I am extremely intrigued, to the point that I just bought a theremin, and will start doing Skype lessons with Thomas Grillo,” she says. “It’s not an easy instrument to master, but I’m suddenly attracted to it. And the sound it creates haunts me in a good way.” 

Good vibrations indeed.

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