Tell Me More: Playing an Instrument Without Touching It
Tell Me More is a Tufts University podcast featuring brief conversations with the thinkers, artists, makers, and shapers of our world. Listen and learn something new every episode. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Spotify, Stitcher, and SoundCloud.
Singer-songwriter Gotye—whose real name is Wally De Backer—has a passion for forgotten electronic instruments like the Ondioline, the Theremin, and the Rhythmicon, which he talks about with instrument designer Mike Buffington in a special two-part series of Tell Me More. In this bonus episode, in addition to the main podcast with Gotye--the two get deep about these lost instruments.
Don't forget the main Tell Me More podcast with Gotye:
HOST: Singer-songwriter Gotye—whose real name is Wally De Backer—has a passion for forgotten electronic instruments like the Ondioline, the Theremin, and the Rhythmicon, which he talks about with instrument designer Mike Buffington in a special two-part series of Tell Me More.
In this bonus episode, Gotye and Buffington get deep with Tufts undergraduate Max Kratzok about these lost instruments. Let’s listen in.
MAX KRATZOK: So, I noticed yesterday, on the Theremin table, you had a bunch of different instruments out there during the rehearsal. So, there were two different Rhythmicons. Is that right? And then, so, yeah—if you could talk me through the differences.
MIKE BUFFINGTON: So, when I met Wally, I told him about my desire to see this one that was in the Smithsonian, locked away. You know, I was calling them every year and they kept saying, “Try back later.” And I tell Wally, and he’s like, “Oh, I was just in Moscow a couple of months prior and I sampled and saw the one there, in Moscow. If you really want to do this, why don’t you go to Moscow?” So, after working it out, we figured out how I could get over to Moscow and borrow the instrument for a few days. I actually took it back to my hotel room and took it apart.
KRATZOK: The original?
BUFFINGTON: The original 1960s—mid-sixties—Rhythmicon.
KRATZOK: I would say that’s brave of them to let you do that.
BUFFINGTON: Yeah, the man who owns it is Andrey Smirnov, and he runs the Theremin Center for Music and the Music Conservatory in Moscow. So, the Theremin community is quite small and everybody knows each other. So, it wasn’t the first time I had conversations with Andrey. Another Theremin friend of mine who was also Russian helped me out and asked if Andrey—“Andrey, he needs some time with this. Do you think it would be okay to take it to the hotel?” And he’s like, “Yeah, sure.” So, I carefully took it apart, dealing with 240 volts and making sure not to electrocute myself, but documented everything and then came back to America and started working on a replica of that. So, I was finding parts on eBay, old German turntables, and French movie projectors from the early 1900s and using all these parts to build a replica as faithful as possible to the one I saw in Moscow.
GOTYE: So the two instruments that you saw on the table yesterday: one of those is that incredibly faithful reproduction that Mike made first, from about a year and a half of diving really deep, trying to find matched parts from the same places that Theremin sort of co-opted different materials from—a German turntable for two different turntables for two different motors. The whole base is this really heavy piece of metal...
BUFFINGTON: Yeah. Cast—
GOTYE: —from a French movie projector.
BUFFINGTON: There’s nothing useful about the base, except for the fact that it’s holding everything down, so I had to sort of cannibalize this not well-preserved movie projector, but it was enough to make me feel a little bit bad. Like, “Oh, no. This will never live its life as a movie projector anymore. It’s now...”
GOTYE: Well, we’ve kept all the other parts, so maybe we’ll find some other original contraption to build out of the leftover parts of other things.
BUFFINGTON: But, the second instrument is the one that is going to be heard in the performance today.
GOTYE: And, Mike, with all the detail and knowledge he developed making that very faithful reproduction of the master Rhythmicon, this instrument I perform with today is kind of like an updated, or stable, controllable and more routable instrument.
KRATZOK: So, you did mention the Ondioline, and there’s a lot going on for the Ondioline. Could you talk about the different components and the different, just how it’s played and what it can do?
GOTYE: The Ondioline is a small keyboard instrument, with a really beautiful wooden case. It has a three-octave keyboard, but a knob that lets you switch across up to eight different octaves. It dates to a period from the late 1930s to the 1960s, when there were other instruments like it—other monophonic electronic instruments that had a tube-based oscillator—things like a Clavioline or Hammond instrument called the Solovox. They are instruments from the U.K., like from Tom Jennings, the Univox. But, the Ondioline really stands out from those instruments, because Georges Jenny’s work was really just out of the box, when you compare the timbre possibilities, and the expressive playing possibilities that these instruments offered.
It’s one of the reasons why the Ondioline had been forgotten, because it’s not nearly as simple to restore as a Clavioline or a Univox. Technicians have tried over the years, but maybe just not got that far with them. So that’s what Stephen Masucci, the Ondioline technician I’ve been working with, and I have just been trying to push forward. [It’s] a lot of digging back to try to work out, “How can we really get these instruments to sound like they did when they left Georges Jenny’s hands in the 1940s or the 1950s?”
They were pretty much all handmade by Jenny over the decades; he made—it’s unclear what the number is exactly—but it’s a few hundred, at most. So, there’s not as many Ondiolines out there as there are Claviolines or Solovoxs, but it’s just an instrument that has, still, such great, expressive potential when you restore it properly, when it really functions the way that it did—the way he made them.
So, we’re very much just trying to revive that work as broadly as possible and put some of these instruments back into the world eventually, so other musicians and producers can explore them. It definitely an instrument, I think, really can’t be captured by, say, a multi-sampling process, offering a virtual version of it—it’s so mechanical. And, those other monophonic keyboard instruments I mentioned, like the Solovoxs and Claviolines of the world—they’re also inherently mechanical.
But there’s these really deft expressive mechanisms that Georges Jenny made. The keyboard can be wiggled side to side for a very expressive manual vibrato. There’s a little box, filled with a thin layer of asbestos under the keyboard, called the progressive attack controller, which gives you these complex noise and transient properties when you hit the keys really hard, or ease into it softly.
Really pioneering research he did at a time when people weren’t looking into how transient aspects and the non-tonal aspects of a sound are super-important to how we recognize, maybe what we recognize as a saxophone-like timbre or a piano versus a violin. So, his instrument in this seemingly crude, but actually deeply elegant, way gives you these electro-mechanical ways to explore those subtle aspects of different timbres that, to me—to my ear—certainly put it streets ahead of the kind of cousin instruments from a similar period.
KRATZOK: How would you say that this new endeavor with the Rhythmicon differs from your last project, with the Ondioline?
GOTYE: They’re all part of a range of projects, under the umbrella of a—it’s the name of the record label I’ve set up, called Forgotten Futures. It’s about to release this compilation of Jean-Jacques Perrey’s early work with the Ondioline, so that’s sort of an umbrella for various projects. I guess I’m trying to take a multi-pronged approach to the research and creating new possibilities for new work performance—and stories to be told.
There are instruments, there are human stories about a lot of things that are forgotten or lost. And I think when multiple aspects of our histories are explored and maybe, either revived or combined, or just presented in a really coherent way, then, unexpected things start to happen—other connections are made. So, yeah. It’s exciting. There are other instruments and other inventors, as well. And other brilliant people I’ve been lucky to meet and who are helping me try to push these ideas forward.
There’s an institution in Melbourne that I’m really excited about, that I’ve been helping over the years with donating some of my instruments that live in Australia, and also helping with budget, to start off what they’re trying to do. That’s a space called Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio. They’re trying an idea of, sort of, a membership system, where you build a community of members, who then have access to a lot of otherwise inaccessible instruments—certainly, a lot of things, say, in Australia, that haven’t been accessible before, because not as many of these interesting instruments have traveled over there, over the decades.
So that has great potential. That’s feeling really exciting. They’re doing some brilliant master classes there, and the membership keeps growing. It’s sort of creeping into multiple hundreds now, so even just in Melbourne, Australia, that’s surprised us, in terms of the enthusiasm.
I think there’s a range of wonderful things that come from the great democratizing of electronic musical instruments: the development of small devices—smartphones, laptops, etc.—beautifully created sample banks and virtual instruments. Those things are wonderful, and they offer all sorts of incredible paths of exploration and new music to be made.
But they’re just a different thing than the physical engagement you have with some of these older ideas—mechanical, electro-mechanical instruments. So, I’m hoping some of those energies are, in different cities in the world, can expand to try to have all those things move forward. I think it’s in the slippage between those different worlds that really interesting ideas ferment.
KRATZOK: So, for those of us who have never seen or been lucky enough to play with a Theremin ourselves, could you tell us a bit more about how that instrument works, being the only instrument that you can play without touching? Unless you guys have come across any other instruments you can play without touching?
BUFFINGTON: Well, there are some modern things that try to replicate that, but they use light-sensors or IT-type technology. It’s not as expressive and potentially beautiful-sounding as a Theremin. When I say a Theremin, I want to mention that it’s a Theremin designed by Léon Theremin. There are other theremins that use different technologies in the future or more recent past, but Theremin used a principle called heterodyning. Heterodyne means to sum two frequencies together. So, he used, basically, the technology available at the time, which was AM radio. So, inside a Theremin was basically three AM radios: two that work with the pitch and one that works with the volume.
When you sum up two frequencies that are very, very close together, you will hear a very— there’s a small difference. That small difference is what you would then amplify and send out through a speaker. That difference can be varied by fixing one of those radios and varying the other. So, a very small change that your body makes on the Theremin. Bodies have electrical charges, so touching—approaching a Theremin, you’re going to affect that radio, and you’re going to change it a little bit. Then, you’re changing the difference of those. You can get four octaves of continuous, changing sound. The other AM radio that’s controlling volume—as your hand approaches this volume antenna, you are disrupting the amount of amplification, so you can, with two hands, control pitch and volume. You can articulate notes, if you’re careful.
You also have to have a very good ear to play a Theremin, because there is no keyboard. There is no fretboard. There’s no physical space every single time, that—that’s that note and a little bit further is that note. So, you have to use your ear, and you have to compensate all the time. It’s difficult to go to that next note quickly, so there are techniques that modern players—and Clara Rockmore, the best thereminist player—have developed to improve playing. It’s just a wild instrument to watch. If you haven’t seen a Theremin, go on YouTube right now and type in Clara Rockmore, Theremin.
KRATZOK: It might not be her, but there is someone who does a really good, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
BUFFINGTON: That’s Peter Pringle.
GOTYE: One of the reasons the Theremin still captures people’s imagination is because of that simple but elegant aspect of—that you don’t touch it at all. And they’re very human movements. Something I find fascinating about it is, because it’s so difficult to play, and it sort of requires you to deny all these very human, I think, emotional impulses to sort of move your body and sway. If you can imagine the way, sometimes, a guitarist with a very physical and moveable instrument—a very portable instrument can put their body into the instrument and physically express some of the things that they’re coaxing out of the strings. You can’t do any of that on a Theremin, because all those things have extreme influences on the sound you’re making.
Having spoken to a few really top-flight thereminists, they really see that unusual fundamental contradiction at the heart of it: that you have to put any sort of emotional relationship you have with it deep into some part of your brain. And then, fix yourself in some static motor space, where the tiniest motor movements of fingers and the arm allow emotional, particular expressive results to come about. So, it’s really fascinating. That’s one of the reasons I think the instrument—even though really, not many people can play it very well—why it still holds this fascination. It is like magic.
KRATZOK: Yeah. And even if you can’t play it very well, you can make some pretty cool sounds.
GOTYE: You can. Yeah.
HOST: Thanks for listening to this special bonus episode of the Tell Me More interview with Gotye. Please subscribe and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Katie McLeod Strollo, Steffan Hacker, Dave Nuscher, and Anna Miller, who also edited this bonus episode. Web production and editing support provided by Taylor McNeil. Special thanks to Amanda Rowley and Paul Lehrman. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well.
Learn more about Tufts' Summer Session 2019 course on the origins of electronic music, including the available sessions for enrollment.