Midland Symphony Orchestra will kick off their 2023/24 season with a Spooky Symphony on Saturday, October 7 at 7:30 PM that will feature Theremin virtuoso Rob Schwimmer, who will perform excerpts from Alfred Hitchcock's classic films Spellbound and Vertigo, which will be paired with Berlioz's diabolical Symphonie Fantastique - a work that hauntingly portrays an artist's self-destructive obsession for a beautiful woman and the terrible consequences of that passion.
Schwimmer is one of a handful of world class Thereminists possessing the experience and agility necessary for playing the Theremin, which is a rare niche instrument that is played without physical contact and controlled by the position of the performers hands between two metal antennas that function as position sensors, with one hand controlling the frequency (or pitch) and the other and the amplitude (or volume). The instrument was invented in October 1919 by the Russian Leon Theremin, who patented the device in 1928.
In addition to the Theremin, Schwimmer is a composer-pianist who has performed and recorded throughout the world, and has just completed his long-awaited 2nd solo CD, Heart of Hearing, for Theremin, Haken Continuum, and solo piano; and his first solo CD, Beyond the Sky, has been widely lauded in both the worlds of Classical & Jazz music. Indeed, his recording sessions include work with Paul Simon, Esperanza Spalding, and Trey Anastasio from Phish.
Recently The REVIEW had the good fortunate to chat with Schwimmer about his interest in this extraordinary instrument known as the Theremin, along with his upcoming performance with The Midland Symphony Orchestra that proved to be equally informative, engaging, and fascinating.
REVIEW: How did you first get interested in the Theremin and how long did it take to become proficient at playing it?
Rob Schwimmer: Do you want the true story? The real truth is I wanted to impress a girl. Back then in 1994 they were a lot harder to find. I don’t even think the Moog company had started making them again back then. They are older than the electric guitar and RCA made some of the earlier old tube models, but today there are many different models to choose from.
It’s an extremely difficult instrument to play because it’s the only instrument out there where you have no tactile touch involved - everything is done with hand and finger movements. If your body moves, or you breathe too hard, you’ll change the pitch. It’s not like you can play it every day and it will sound the same as it did the day before.
When I started playing it nearly 30 years ago, it was like the Wild West in terms of the goal being once you find your pitch that’s it and you pretty much take off from that point. People often talk about this thing called ‘perfect pitch’, but that does not help you play in tune so much as help you know when you’re out of tune with the Theremin.
It took me close to a year of practice before I started getting bearable on the instrument. Learning it is challenging because you think you’re getting good at playing something simple like Mary Had a Little Lamb, hearing it in your head while you’re playing it for someone, and then you finish and they’ll go, ‘Oh, that was real nice, what was it?’, because nobody recognizes the song except for you!
REVIEW: So you do you play in different key signatures with the Theremin?
Schwimmer: Absolutely. They’re there whether you see them or not, so there’s all sorts of different aspects to the notion of playing in tune on this instrument. Let’s say you’re playing a piece that you know - that will actually influence your finger position in terms of where you’re going next to retain the proper pitch.
REVIEW: You’re also a gifted pianist. Your first solo piano CD was praised by The New York Times for demonstrating a “machine-gun speed and clarity” in your style. When did you first start with the piano?
Schwimmer: I’ve played piano since the age of three and am self-taught. I’ve played with orchestras and Classical musicians, but didn’t go to conservatory or any of that stuff. I’m sort of like a rock-and-roller who went backwards and have played piano on all sorts of things.
REVIEW: Tell me about this upcoming ‘Spooky Symphony’ performance with the Midland Symphony Orchestra and what is it about the sound of the Theremin that makes it such an iconic instrument?
Schwimmer: My take on that would be there are two different kinds of playing on the Theremin - one is the spooky sci-fi sound, and the other sounds more like a beautiful exotic singer. A lot of it comes down to phrasing.
An interesting thing is how the Theremin you hear on almost all the horror and sci-fi movies that came out of Hollywood in the 1950s and ‘60s is all played by he same guy - Samuel Hoffman. His name is on every movie soundtrack that ever featured a Theremin and you can tell his sound because the way he played the instrument contained a lot of vibrato. People associate the sound of the instrument as this ‘scary thing’, but that was all because of the way he played. The studio executives never thought to call him in for any romantic songs, just the scary stuff; but it didn’t have to be that way and he was the only guy in Hollywood playing the instrument at that time.
For this Midland show I’ll be playing Spellbound, which won an Academy Award for Best Score in 1945, plus I’ll be playing things from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which actually didn’t have a Theremin in the original soundtrack. I always loved that one love scene when Kim Novak is dressed in Madeline’s clothes and I would play my own arrangement of that tune on the piano for years. I thought it felt like it might work on a Theremin so experimented with the song and it definitely did; but getting a classical orchestra to play something not in an original score is a challenge.
The Orchestra of St. Lukes asked me play with them and I asked if we could try my arrangement of this piece from Vertigo and they ended up digging it. Once I was able to get a major orchestra to sign off on it I’ve been able to perform it with a lot of orchestras since then.
REVIEW: What’s the most challenging component involved with creating music on the Theremin and evolving your sound with it?
Schwimmer: Every Theremin player looks at things in their own way. What interests me the most is in what setting the instrument sounds great. You can use it and play it really well, but if it’s in a setting or room that wasn’t written or suited for it, you can run into problems. I tend to go towards the old-fashioned romantic sound of this instrument, so in terms of sculpting one’s sound, it depends on your personal idea of what the instrument is.
REVIEW: The only time I ever saw a Theremin played was when I saw Led Zeppelin live down in Detroit back in my high school days and Jimmy Page was using it during an extended solo of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and ‘Dazed and Confused’.
Schwimmer: My performance in Midland will be a little different than that and not quite as rock-and-roll, but you know I come from a rock-and-roll background and think Theremin playing is as influenced by Jimmy Page as it is by any Thereminist out there - it goes back to what I was saying about every performer cultivating their own sound on the instrument.
REVIEW: Are they a hard instrument to maintain?
Schwinner: It depends because there are so many different models now. The early tube models are hard to maintain and nobody wants to move them around because they’re so expensive, rare, and delicate. Today things are more solidified, but if anything can go wrong with a Theremin it will. I did a tour in England for seven weeks and wrote this piece and was touring it with a great modern dance company. We were playing all over the UK, but because the electricity was different at every venue we were booked at, each night presented a new challenge.
REVIEW: You’ve worked with some major artists such as Simon & Garfunkel and more recently Trey Anastasio and Esperanza Spaulding. What were those experiences like?
Schwinner; When I was touring with Simon & Garfunkel I did the solo on their song The Boxer, which was a big hit for them. I played 90 shows with them on tours over the years, so that was kind of a big thing. With Trey I did some work on his solo album, The Traveler, and with Esperanza Spalding I played the Haken Continuum, which is similar to a Theremin but uses a touch surface so when you get with a pianist or a band you can phrase and bend notes and extend the tones more, but you lose harmony in the process, which is a lot to lose. So with the Haken Continuum it’s like each finger is an independent Theremin on this touch surface, so you can get your harmony back. It’s very difficult to play multiple voices in tune, but you can equip yourself to do it. The album of Esperanza’s that I performed on won a Grammy that year, so my life involves multiple instruments for multiple purposes.
REVIEW: How many Theremins to do you own?
Schwinner: I have ten of them right now in my collection and most have similar tones, but more recently innovations with different sounds are happening, so I’ll be playing one of the newer models in Midland. I’ll go for a more traditional sounding Theremin on one of the songs I’ll be performing, and a less traditional sound on the other one.
REVIEW: Any other thoughts you would like to share with our readers?
Schwimmer: Yes. Playing a Theremin is like having sex with ghosts.
Tickets for the Spooky Symphony concert on October 7 are going fast and are currently available online at www.midlandcenter.org, by calling (989) 631-8250, or by visiting the Midland Center for the Arts box office located at 1801 W. St. Andrews Rd., Midland.
16th November, 2023