Chapter 2

Historical Perspectives

As I opened the door onto the dusty, silent space, an ethereal presence swept out, inciting an impression of another time colliding, mingling and dissolving with the present. Initially, the source of this impression was unclear. Then it became apparent; it was the contents. I glanced about the stillness as I entered.

Stacked along the walls, at different heights, were vertical layers with colored edges, sometimes thick, sometimes thin. All appeared removable, as some had fallen over and were exposing inner leaves. Some had also fallen to the floor. These symmetrical sheets, marked with consistent inscriptions of lines, points and glyphs, traced some past idea or forgotten activity. Were they specifications or directions concerning the objects in the room? That seemed a reasonable assumption.

Occupying the room were various objects so remarkable as to suggest some common purpose. Two, lying side by side, appeared to have some kind of co-operative relation. In close proximity, their scale and materials suggested a functional connection–as if they were thought of at the same time. The others were of considerably larger proportions, free standing and self-contained. Grouped as they were, these artifacts slept in a stillness contrary to the language of their design–attractive and enigmatic. Why were they so?

I was attracted to the two objects lying together, and studied their fine and delicate construction. They were neither long nor wide but of a proportion that suggested close, intricate use. Both were curiously shaped. For inanimate objects they had an uncanny biological semblance–sensual and skeletal–that gave them simultaneously form and transparency. Their being was external, complex and timeless.

The more complex of these objects had a flat body, and was pinched in at the sides which gave it vaguely divided appearance. Its large surfaces were slightly distended. A side view suggested that this section was in a state of stress and pressure. Something like a body where conditions on the outside were contrary to those on the inside.

A fine extended section with a dominant black surface, protruded awkwardly from the body. In design, it was almost the antithesis of the larger section to which it was attached. It was long and tapered to a block from which a cluster of four dark rods emerged from the sides. Four strands of material connected to these rods, spanned the extension and arched up gradually across the body until the widest section where they returned abruptly to the surface. The strands were pushed up by a finely wrought ridge of material.

Its companion object, a separate rod, paralleled with many strands of fine white fibers, seemed integral to some operation but with no obvious or permanent connection. The curvature of the rod seemed to suggest that it was or had been under tension.

I picked up the larger object. It was light and hollow, and its delicate state was clearly sensitive to movement. Its shape did not immediately convey its use. As I brushed the four strands, setting the body resonating, it became evident that this had something to do with its operation.

And then there was the long, slender rod, partly rigid, partly flexible and under some pressure. It suggested a means to prevail over the energy of the chamber. It became obvious that these two objects made contact on their flexible surfaces. Beyond that, these objects became obscure.

I turned to the largest object in the room, and it loomed large and dark above the floor. It seemed to float on its three tapering supports, quietly conveying a specific orientation to the space around it. Its complex circumference and surfaces suggested important contents.

On closer examination, the flat dark object had several moveable surfaces. The highest and largest surface folded in on itself and then could be raised up and away from the curved side. What lay below was unimaginable from its closed state. Inside was a skeleton and a structure of geometric lines, frozen energy and an overwhelming sense of depth. The interior was reminiscent of the outside of the small objects that lay nearby. The same strands of tension, an inner space, and associations between the strands and the chamber.

At one end, the main surface dropped away to a lower curved ledge. It folded back to reveal a tiled surface in a curious white/black pattern. The black tiles were raised and recessed from the front edge.

I pushed on a white tile. It descended abruptly and the room immediately resounded with an energy that emanated from within the object. I withdraw and stillness returned. Depressing a black tile produced a similar result but the tile descended only to the level of the surrounding white tiles. All the tiles could be depressed, in any order, at any time and with different pressures but the energy was of a different type each time. How the energy was released through the tile action was unclear; something internal to the object appeared to move. The energy, nevertheless, was related to the smaller object which had something of a structural similarity. The difference seemed to be that this object internalized its fundamental operations whereas the other externalized it. These objects also had structural similarities and comparable properties for the transmission and amplification of energy.

Poised unobtrusively–like a receptacle for sacred things–the last object seemed odd but less impressive than the other objects. It was neither the biggest nor the smallest. There was an ambiguity about its appearance, a slight provocativeness in its peculiar extraneous detail that was almost ornamental.

It looked functional but there was nothing obvious. Nothing that might continuously move or be moved through external excitation as with the other objects. There was a tiny recessed panel below a sloping surface with dials that appeared to turn, but it seemed arbitrary to the mysterious function suggested by the rest of its form. Nothing further indicated a similarity to the other objects. A rod rose from the top right side of the enclosure. Another curved and looped out the opposite side. The sloping surface suggested a point where some operation might take place. A dark thread descended from the lower part of the cabinet and wound its way across the floor to where it rose and met the wall.

Did anything move? It had no ambience of energy in abeyance. Neither was there a sense that it should be touched or held. It was a kind of altar–a place where some forces met or were made manifest.

Looking around at these objects, I sensed there was something missing. Their design reflected an incompleteness, not in and of themselves but in a scheme beyond their appearance. Each had surface detail, almost ornamentation, that told those that merely observe them of some greater potential for interaction.


This chapter is concerned with locating the musical interface in three traditional instruments: the violin, piano and theremin. Since the term did not exist at the time of their creation, or indeed throughout the significant periods of their development, it needs to be approached with some circumspection. An attempt has been made to draw out a historical interpretation that can be used as a foundation for later expansion.

Beyond the Golden Age

The names Amati, Guaneri Del Gesü, Stradivari, Tourte, Dodd, Broadwood, Pleyel, Steinway, Theremin imbue, with complex and substantial histories, the instruments to which they are associated. These instruments, as we now understand them, have long and convoluted histories, creating what might be thought of as a living mythology. This mythology–an amalgam of fact and fiction–is important in the reception and continuing existence of any object which has transcended our living memories. How successive generations view musical instruments is to some extent determined by the manner in which they carry their past, function in the present and reflect a future. The violin and piano comfortably embrace the historical continuum, whereas the theremin reflects the now characteristic "future" history of contemporary electronic musical instruments. This is a state of obsolescence in which the instrument continues to evoke a spirit of the future. Even at the height of its popularity, the theremin probably had a greater conceptual than practical appeal.

The conditions responsible for the historical appreciation of music can be traced to various epochs during which the "Art of the Instrument" was raised to new heights. Each period accumulated–along with instruments, music and literature–an aura which continues to surround their collective use. This is a sphere of communal experience, fused as a style in the mind of the beholder, and frequently evoked solely at the sight of the instrument. This aura lives on in the performance of the music. The evolution of instruments, the evolution of music and the evolution of social admiration for the collective experience, has become something too complex to unravel in any simple way. Classical Music not only identifies a type of music but a social group who listen to and admire this music. The music now embodies and reflects cultural mores distant from those understood by the composer.

The history of the contemporary violin effectively begins with the creation of the paradigmatic instruments of the Golden Age which lasted from the mid-seventeenth century until around the mid-eighteenth century. Among the many remarkable things about this period of instrument construction is the locality. Situated in the center of Cremona, 1 the makers lived within close proximity and nurtured a remarkable standard of instrument construction. Apart from the obvious logistical reasons of apprenticeship and inheritance, the fact that such outstanding instruments emerged from such a small area and for such a period of time is intriguing in our age of decentralized mass production. 2 Furthermore, it is ironic that it was not until sometime later that these instruments became as highly valued in their own country as they were elsewhere in Europe. Although Stradivari was famous throughout all of Europe by the time he was sixty, very little was actually known about him. By 1744, the great makers were gone but their legacy was being appreciated, as the art of violin making spread to other centers in Italy and Europe.

However, it is largely myth that this period set standards to which subsequent instruments makers have continuously sought to aspire, and that the instrument itself has undergone little change since this time. Although makers continue to be reluctant to embrace significant change or unsuccessful in further innovation, many refinements have been undertaken in ancillary components, production and standardization. A deeper understanding of period instruments has come about during this century and brought a greater historical awareness to the diversity of the violin. The period before the Golden Age is difficult to assess, eclipsed by the Cremona artisans. One has to assess the Renaissance and Medieval instruments in their own context in order to fully appreciate the importance and beauty of instrumental music during those times.

While a "benchmark" for violins matured within the century and a half of Cremona production, the question of the instrument's survival beyond this period could not be answered with the finite number of instruments produced from that time. The need for further, equal or slightly inferior quality instruments, arose with an eagerness for violin music and its aesthetic position in emerging musical styles. A consciousness of the instrument has been maintained through subsequent musical periods. Today, no one seems concerned that violin music from 1750 onwards is not always played on a period instrument because there is an essential violinness, powerfully connecting the modern instrument to its origins and history.

Prior to the early part of this century, the violin used gut strings. The sound we so often hear now is the violin with steel strings. Gut strings produce a sound not immediately reminiscent of the modern violin. Aesthetic preferences aside, the emergence of steel strung violins met the demand for the presentation of violin music in large concert halls which were a relatively unknown acoustic space in the eighteenth century. Although concert halls were becoming more common by the nineteenth century, it was not until the 1920s that steel strings became necessary and accepted for orchestral music.

The use of steel strings necessitates structural changes within the violin. Simply to put them on a Baroque violin without first strengthening it internally would be to risk damaging the instrument through increased tension. Structural changes were also introduced to take advantage of the dynamic range offered by the new strings. The violin thus became louder and more penetrating. In fact, some of the surviving Cremona violins have be modified to take steel strings. In their original form, they could not be effectively used against a setting of contemporary violins with different acoustic characteristics. Anomalies abound in the histories of musical instruments. Subtle changes to the violin allow it to remain a popular instrument without being overtly contemporary. The piano, in contrast, seems to have a contemporary status equal, at least, to its historical one.

The modern piano by virtue of its long and sustained development period, differs from the violin, largely in demands made on its construction. This has been undertaken through complex factory and mass production technologies. Modern piano production is more of a compromise with technology than the violin, as it involves the distribution of knowledge and expertise across a number of crafts and technologies. An instrument of the modest mass production period, it is generally understood to be highly impractical, and thus too expensive to be produced by a solitary artisan.

Piano design innovation has slowed considerably. This has been a gradual process since the turn of the century, and for some components the design seems fixed. This is particularly evident in the layout and structure of the performer/instrument interface.

Thus we see that the ingenuity of man seems to have become fairly well crystallized in the present keyboard, which has held its own without essential changes for upwards of three centuries. During that time every conceivable device and innovation has been attempted, and has either brought about some minor change or has fallen by the wayside. The principles of keyboard construction cannot at the present time be said to be in a state of flux, and any changes that the future may bring will more than likely have to wait upon the introduction of an entirely new conception of the materials of music. 3
A half century later, with technology abounding, there seems no sustainable impetus to change the layout of the keyboard, even for instruments that are not restricted by the dimensions of the sound production mechanism.

The piano is also understood as a product of an entirely different economic and social climate from that of the violin. Its longevity is due, in part, to an adaptability to the economic needs of a class of people eager to pursue the delights of keyboard music and pedagogy but unable to afford the instrument in its most effective and expensive form.

For the Piano was not merely a prince of instruments, `a mirror reproducing whatever is most characteristic of the general state of music'. In its golden age it became the centre of domestic entertainment, of musical education and, not least, a coveted possession, symbolic of social emulation and achievement, within reach of an ever-widening circle of eager purchasers. 4
Smaller pianos were built that were economically and acoustically appropriate to domestic use. A concert-sized grand piano in a normal living room would never realize its sonic potential as these instruments are designed for a space where they are best heard at some distance.

A violin or piano has a certain life expectancy, and given their relative sizes and sophistications, require about the same amount of maintenance. The piano, being under enormous stress and possessing more moving parts, for many years requires only re-tuning. Beyond a decade or so of use, a piano begins to slowly lose those structural and resonant properties much admired at the height of its maturity. Certainly, it is possible to restore a instrument but often that can have the effect of restoring a sound other than the original. If it amounts to completely rebuilding it then a new instrument may be as much an aesthetic as a pragmatic alternative.

The kind of specialist maintenance required by pianos has necessitated a range of skilled technicians from tuners to polishers. In this respect, it reflects a social interaction similar to that of owning a house or a business. The maintenance needs of the violin can generally be done by the owner or by a violin maker. This demonstrates a sophistication proportional to the technical complexity of the instruments.

The theremin, although relatively new, is defunct or, at least, remains as much a historical novelty as it was when first introduced. It was initially popular in an age attracted to representations of the Modern, due to its capacity to inspire a sense of the future. Ironically, this future does not contain the theremin as a significant music vehicle but only as a relic of a new age of instruments. It immediately captured the imagination as a novelty but failed to establish aesthetic credibility through the inspiration of a significant concert repertoire. Traditionally, to distinguish and establish any instrument, it was necessary to convert idiosyncrasies into powerful and uniquely expressive positions with particular social relevance.

Although the instrument was licensed to RCA Victor by Theremin in 1929 for the commercial production, its popularity was certainly based on its unique qualities and not a specialist repertoire. Even later, well beyond the peak of its popularity, the ethereal and detached sound made it a favorite instrument for science-fiction movie sound tracks. Beyond that it seems not to have been taken seriously by the public and "remained a quaint novelty at recitals until the mid-1930s, and although ambitious composers such as VarÜse, Joseph Schillinger, and Andre Pashchenko wrote special music for it, public interest in the instrument faded." 5 As Richard Dobson further notes "Theremin returned to Russia in 1938, leaving the instrument to be developed at the whim of performers, composers, and engineers". 6 While it may have declined in general popularity by the end of the 1930s, a later transistorized version met with some public demand as noted by Holmes, "Moog and his wife, Shirleigh, ran this business from their apartment and, in one year [early 1960s], reportedly sold a thousand kits at the price of $49.95 each." 7 Recent articles 8 have also appeared suggesting that it hasn't entirely faded from the musical public's mind and that it also remains a favorite project among hobbyists instrument builders.

Like the player piano, the theremin seems to have been a product of a rationalist view of the world and somewhat out of place in a creative one. It was inspirational but not to the specific task of music composition. Both these instruments appear imperfect against the historical paradigms to which they are closely allied. What they have in common is the removal of the human agent from the primitive act of creating the sound. They crudely attempted to expose or demystify that which has persisted throughout all cultures since the dawn of mankind–the human act of making music. It would appear, in retrospect, that both instruments were harbingers of a new musical world just around the corner. Yet they were such curious manifestations of musical thinking that to have divined a sense of a musical future would have required considerable interpretation. Only now can we see that one embodied the desire for recorded music and the other the notion of "virtual" instruments.

It is my interpretation that the theremin offered little musically in comparison with traditional musical practice and demanded too much from a technologically inexperienced musical public. But what would contribute to a change in the course of musical thinking was not so much the proliferation of such instruments but the dissemination of the concepts that they entertain and promulgate. The theremin, along with other instruments, are practical laboratories in which underlying concepts were often subliminally conveyed, emerging later in instrumental evolution.

The passing "golden ages" of the theremin, violin and piano have left cultural auras that provide an impetus for the continuation of their musical or conceptual positions. Why they flourish or simply linger is dependent on the relevance and potential of their music or concept. If this is a justification for the existence of musical instruments, then it is evident that they must enter into a spirit of progress or contemporaneity. No musical instrument simply exists independent or isolated from the dynamic of the musical world.

Contemplation of any contemporary instrument reveals a dynamic which is corroborated through many facets of its music. Each historical period has made an impression on the development of instruments.

Materials and Construction

The violin, piano and theremin are instances of their respective technological ages. Reflected in their construction is an understanding of the materials of these technologies, wood, cloth, leather, iron and later synthetic substances, each worked in progressively more sophisticated ways.

The violin is revered as a handmade instrument. The scope of its construction can be appreciated by a single craftsperson. Beyond the acquisition of the raw materials, violin construction is a matter of knowledge, intuition and experience brought together in a very refined object. These attributes are usually possessed by a single maker and the instrument will bear their name with more intimate connotations than for the piano. Instruments from a single maker tend to differ successively, reflecting personal motivations and the experimental path towards the maker's ideal.

The modern piano is a factory product, dependent on mass production techniques for its quality and existence. It is impossible for one person to build a piano without at least some assistance. Usually it requires a team of specialists, skilled in fabrication of each major component. The piano's size also tends to prohibit small working environments which in turn gives rise to an another reason for factory conditions in that it requires a significant financial undertaking to tool up for production.

Considerable uniformity between instruments is sought among performers since they are not easily transported nor conveniently adjustable prior to performance by anyone other than specialists. Uniformity of quality, not only within a model range but also across different brands of instruments, is probably the most recent achievement of piano manufacture. While instruments will always be somewhat different, reducing this margin to the point where it becomes difficult to distinguish between instruments of quality, or the specialized manufacture of instruments better suited to particular styles of music, essentially reflects a triumph in instrument production. Yamaha, for example, was the first piano manufacturer to refine the manufacturing of parts to the extent that they could set up an assembly line environment in their factory. In the 1970s and 1980s the company was manufacturing some 200,000 instruments annually, "by far the largest in the history of the industry". 9

The theremin is a definitive example of twentieth-century music technology. Its construction depends on external industries not primarily associated with music but the scientific knowledge of electricity and electronic circuits. It is profoundly committed to this technology, and its expressive potential lies in the social awareness of the power of technology to impress the human mind. As an electronic instrument, the theremin was quickly subject to radical redesign and extension but not enough to re-invigorate public enthusiasm. What the instrument really was, did not depend on its external form or appearance. It could be given a radically different performance interface and, provided that it maintained the same sound would be accepted in the place of any predecessor. This is essentially the philosophy of twentieth-century musical instruments. It is therefore in a contrary situation to either the piano or violin, in that its appearance is of little importance to the sound, provided the electronics are similar in design.

Sound Production

Piano and violin sound production techniques are complex instances of fundamental means of sound production, striking and bowing. Considerable refinement has resulted in these instruments producing only a narrow range of acceptable sound, and yet much discussion has focused on the apparent diversity, timbre, sonority and dynamic therein. Within this range lies a vast repertoire of compositions which have become culturally valuable. The violin's shape, more than the piano's, is important in defining its sound.

There are good reasons for the present shape of stringed instruments. Consciously or unconsciously, violin-makers were fulfilling an acoustical demand when they formed the waist using C-shapes to dispense with unwanted sonority that would have been detrimental to fullness of tone, and carved out sound-holes in the form of f 's. 10
The violin, piano and theremin–in fact, virtually all instruments–have sophisticated and highly stylized appearances which culturally cloak their sound generating mechanisms. Listeners generally do not contemplate the elemental principles involved in sound production while listening to music. Music transcends the physical conditions inherent in its own production. What is important is the degree of refinement imposed upon the underlying physical operations. Everyone, everyday, accidentally or intentionally makes sound by striking or rubbing the physical world. This elementary act is taken for granted in the reception of acoustic music.

Although it looks relatively straightforward, bowing a string is not an immediately appreciable action necessary to produce the sound now understood as a violin sound. From everyday experiences in making sound, it is difficult to conceive that the violin might be a natural consequence of certain physical actions. Only on rare occasions would there occur a sound in the natural world that might be inspirational to the creation of such an instrument. Thus the violin is highly refined instance of a principle of nature, not only in how it is constructed and how it is played but in the continuing effort necessary to maintain the ideal of the violin sound. It is not a sound that is simple to produce and which can be neglected once initiated. It needs constant attention and adjustment in performance. While this is obviously a disadvantage for the novice, it is what makes the instrument so expressive and versatile in the hands of an expert.

The piano puts the means of absolute control slightly out of reach of the performer in return for a sound not possible by any other means. Once the player has activated the hammer, physics takes over and the string is struck.

The sound quality of a piano greatly depends on hammer and string quality, tuning and the sound board. From the player's point of view, the action can influence how they follow through the activation of one hammer after the other. It is the material at the point of impact that determines pitch, timbre and loudness after the performer has initiated movement. If the action is stiff or heavy, subtlety of operation and sound may be impaired or inconsistent. This is something that the pianist learns to compensate for with different instruments.

The theremin is the result of the electrical age and knowledge of the acoustical phenomenon of Heterodyning. This occurs when frequency is combined with another to produce a third "beat" frequency. In the case of the theremin the first two are inaudible while the third falls within the audible range. The striking importance of this is that it puts the theremin outside our primary means of sound production. Without the specific electronic components, this sound would be inaccessible to humans. It is not the direct sound of our acoustic world, relying on a rational rather than a priori interpretation for appreciation. The result of a synthetic context, not so much refined but tangentially discovered, sets it apart from the violin and piano.

The theremin's sound-sign waves with enough sidebands to add depth to the tone-while vocal-like, tends toward uniformity of spectral characteristics in the time domain. This makes it less able than the voice to sustain interest. To some degree, this is also determined by the context and the composition. The theremin requires considerable technical proficiency to constantly enliven the timbre during performance.

A definitive theremin composition would be idiosyncratic, aesthetically effective and unique to the instrument. Such a composition would have ideally been produced during the theremin's zenith rather than now when the theremin is generally considered passe. 11 What remains of interest is the performer/instrument interaction which can now be thought to be independent of any sound.

Unlike the violin or the piano which have highly integrated sound production and diffusion apparatus, the signal source of the theremin is more or less uniform given the quality of the components used. The amplifier and speakers have a more dramatic effect on sound quality and presentation, therefore since these are generally independent of the sound producing circuitry, assessment of the theremin sound depends on more factors than the initial signal. 12

The theremin's sound is reminiscent of the human singing voice, and perhaps, the violin under certain conditions when, for example, the sounds are sustained without great spectral variance. The parallel with the violin puts the theremin in a awkward position–along with most electronic instruments–in that its musicality appears to be partially novel. The overtness of technology can dominate any unique aesthetic position the instrument may have. Curiously, now with the passing of time and the acceptance of music technology as an integral part of our musical lives, the theremin (or at least its sound) may be gaining an historical aesthetic. Listening to the sound of the theremin is no longer the same as listening to technology, but to the history of technology.

The idea today that a new electronic instrument would have a fixed and unvarying sound quality is unimaginable. If the theremin were to be used now, it could have its sound subtly modified by effects processors thereby eliminating the essentially static nature of the sound. 13 It could be a controller and free from the hetrodyning sound. So, in fact, can all acoustic instruments but their need for sonic enhancement is far less. What began as a limitation for the theremin at the beginning of this century has been overcome towards the end, at the cost, however, of tampering with the uniqueness of the instrument and eventually making it redundant.

I think the central problem with the theremin is an imbalance between the potential of the interface and the resulting sound. It has always presented a powerful image at the interface, but has failed to deliver a sound that matches the visual expectations. There is also no rational correlation between action and sound and what is even more disturbing is that there is no sonic precedent for any expectations.

Consequently, the sound of the theremin is the sound of a moment in the evolution of electronic instruments and, perhaps, the spirit of that age. Like the piano, but in a more visible way, the theremin's existence was linked to the rapid progress of science and the euphoria surrounding technological advancement.


What is the extent of the instrumental interface? In the context of acoustic instruments, the primary location would be around the point of contact between the performer and the instrument. This area is by no means universally appreciated or understood. The previous chapter described how a previous unknown space–that between the performer and the instrument–becomes immediately evident with the interpolation of the computer. This is perhaps because up until such activities, no one was concerned with exploring the topology of the space between the performer and the sound. This traditional "interface domain" is an amalgam of the physical disposition of the instrument, the performer and their means of interaction. Different instruments have unique topologies requiring different modalities of human engagement. It is also not simply a static bounded space but something like a bubble. Its dimensions can only be shaped through inner forces, and although the distance between one side and the other can change, it may do so with the side-effect of deforming the entire shape. The following sections attempt to traverse this space, touching upon certain central issues.

Physical Form

The method by which a traditional instrument produces sound influences its form and construction, and this consequently affects the position of the performer. By form, I mean the macro and micro components of an instrument. Whether it is the angle of curvature in a piece of wood, the height of an instrument or the finish on an internal component, the form determines something of the sound and the nature of the performer's engagement.

But form can reflect something other than functionality, convenience or appearance. The form of an instrument is evidence of a search for an ideal in sound through introspection of the concept of the instrument itself. The instrument is a step towards the ideal. Traditional instrument makers strive for the ne plus ultra in their craft of instrument construction, and we understand this goal to be determined primarily by sound. In contrast, instruments in the electronic age are invested with considerable timbral diversity, and their form is determined entirely independently of the sound. This is the antithesis of the traditional view. The theremin is an example of this, where the hetrodyning phenomena is not effected by the shape of the theremin cabinet.

The piano in its supreme form–the concert grand–has a dimension largely irrelevant to the concerns of the performer. It is an expansive object to which the performer becomes indifferent during performance. The weight, shape, inner tensions and forces are frozen before the performer whose concern and focus is on only part of the instrument–the point of interaction and the sound. Yet the totality of the instrument's physical condition is what the performer is actually engaging. It is impossible to exclude this from the performance experience.

The violinist has a more dynamic relationship with the instrument. Its form may be said to change as its position does. It drifts with the motion of the performer and yet does not impede the act of physically producing the sound. The player can feel the tension of the strings and the bow, and is conscious of weight and other dimensions. However, over time, it is conceivable that this awareness becomes absorbed into the performance experience in much the same way as we normally become unconscious of our limbs in daily activities. The physical properties become transparent and being visible only when they suddenly change–as with a broken string.

The emergence of the theremin marks an approximate point where the form of the instrument becomes separated from the production of sound. Having a separate external speaker cabinet further removes the instrument from its sound. Up to that historical period, it had largely been taken for granted, and therefore not prominent in any musical discourse, that music was a highly visceral act. There was always a kinesthetic and visceral connection in performance, and the passive visual experience is mapped onto the aural as a confirmation of the phenomena of action. The theremin created a context in which those beliefs long held on musical performance were severely questioned, but not as a direct attack on any traditional instrument or musical style.

Mechanical Action to Sound

The ingenuity of musical instrument construction and performance often makes it difficult to speculate on the relationship between human action and instrumental sound. If the sound of an instrument is generated by plucking strings, it can be assumed, only after some observation and deduction, that breathing will not feature significantly in sound production. Only through more detailed study can breathing be viewed as important in the performance experience.

The point at which interaction takes place reveals something about the sound agenda of the instrument. When we compare instruments, it can be seen that at the point of contact, the player is constantly being told something about the instrument's sound characteristics and potential. To an onlooker, this can be obvious while at other times, it is obfuscated. To the performer, it would always be inevitable. In the case of the piano, a pitch map is clearly present in the layout of the keys, with the overall keyboard dimension further dictating the necessary position of the body of the performer. The pitch range and creative potential of the instrument can be appreciated at a glance. But any intrinsic value this linear mapping may outwardly reflect is subverted in reality through the temporal organization of pitches to form harmonic and contrapuntal structures. We understand the canon of piano works to completely transcend the evident simplicity of such information presentation. The keyboard is initially a convenient entry point to the concept of the instrument but one that quickly gives way to more important musical issues. The keyboard does not reveal significant musical structures which only become apparent through piano study.

The traditional piano keyboard layout, evolving from a combination of intellectual and physical participation, is optimized for performance. Multiple keyboards for the one instrument–attempts at expanding the potential of the instrument–present logistic and spatial problems that seem to diffuse that creative focus and break up the sense of singularity of purpose always apparent with professional pianists.

The violin has obviously a very different performance topology, one that is not easily visualized. The difficulty lies in getting beyond the linearity of the strings and imagining the many types of crossings from one string to another. Crossing entails a combination of finger position and bow action. In developing a technique to manage this structural property of the violin, the player learns to create a seamlessness from an otherwise disjunct operation.

Unlike the violin or the piano, the sound the theremin makes has no correlate to its actual physical form. Thus the player is not concerned with a "contact" performance technique but acts as something like a cybernetic mime. To compound the peculiarity of this situation even further, the sound has an indifferent correlate with performance technique. In fact, it is very difficult to imagine any sound that might be the result of very slight hand movements in mid-air, with the notable exception of orchestral conducting. Clearly, theremin performance is in a sense closer to conducting than traditional instrumental performance because of the detachment between control and response. It has a well defined spatial area of function and good response to movement when operated within the prescribed range of the antenna. Leon Theremin, himself a cellist, is said to have viewed the cello as a model for his instrument. The analogy of the cello may have some correspondence in physical actions but seems less convincing than that of the conductor. If anything, a composite of both the cellist and conductor analogies circumscribes the engagement of the theremin.

Feedback and Mechanical Communication

An essential physical dimension of virtually all performance is the tactile quality. Musical instruments reflect the highest state to which the idea of "feedback" and mechanical interaction have risen in our society and most performers intuitively understand their part in the "feedback" loop. The implications of feedback are present irrespective of the mechanisms involved. The theremin may be said to be closer to the violin than the piano because of the piano's internal mechanism. The theremin is an interesting example because it expands the definition of tactile performance.

Robert Moog, in the liner notes to the CD by Clara Rockmore "The Art of the Theremin" states the following about feedback between the performer and the theremin:

The theremin performer plays without the benefit of any tactile reference whatever. Unlike a violinist, who is in constant contact with the instrument's fingerboard, or a clarinetist who feels the reed and keys, or even singer who feels that vocal chords, the thereminist feels no shape or force as she moves from one pitch to another. She is constantly moving her hands, listening to the resulting pitch changes, then "trimming" the precise position of her hands to home in on the desired pitch and volume. The process is essentially one of continuous aural feedback. For this reason, placement of the theremin loudspeaker is extremely important. Ms. Rockmore uses a large, open-back speaker cabinet which she places behind and slightly above her head, pointing out toward her audience. With such an arrangement, she is able to hear the effect of her hand motions soon enough so that her audience is rarely, if ever, aware of the aural feedback corrections that she intuitively applies. 14
Music is sometimes thought of as having magical properties, and thus to have musical skills is to have some form of power. Performance is seen as an endeavor that eventually transcends its obvious physical dimension. The theremin thus contradicts historical paradigms. Nevertheless, it does have its own peculiar power. Since the performer never makes contact with the instrument a fascinating alternative is invoked. The magic is neither their performance nor in the music but in the nature of the instrument itself. There is the impression of the performer divining the sound, pointing to or attracting attention to instances of the phenomena that define the composition. It is as if the sound is always present but that the player uncovers the correct sounds at the right time and as was noted previously, the parallel with conducting illuminates a special relationship that the performer has with the instrument.

As intriguing as the phenomenon of the theremin is, it could not carry the instrument into the mainstream of instrumental development. There are probably a number of reasons for this but most significant would have to be the lack of physical contact with the means to produce the sound and the overt technical skill that seems to pervade the conventional musical experience. Another paradox of the theremin's sonic behavior, detrimental to its popularity, is its overall sensitivity.

The antennas actually respond to all body movements. Therefore, it is necessary for the player to exert firm control over her body and head motions as well as her hand motions. The ability to stand motionless is absolutely essential. Concert-goers have remarked on Ms. Rockmore's controlled stance. One reviewer even wrote : "Ms Rockmore's seance-like management of this slightly supernatural instrument is quite amazing. Of course, the purpose of remaining still is not theatrical or hypnotic at all, but strictly musical." 15

Even up to this time, the importance of physical contact with musical instruments has not diminished. The instrument may now, in this age of electronic instruments, be a generic controller but the importance of having an object with which one manipulates the sound may be considered a primal necessity in the ritual musical act. Sound quality continuously depends on the performer's contact with the instrument and constant adjustment of the position of the hands and the body. Technique seems to be based on transcending an extremely difficult set of physical conditions not obviously related to the goal of producing the ideal sound.

The violin is a private instrument, evoking the idea of deep personal attachment and individuality. It is played with considerable intimacy. The violinist envelops the instrument. It often appears that the performer is silently speaking into the instrument, creating a sense of oneness comparable to the voice. As a distinctive non-breath instrument, it is a powerful and expressive prosthetic.

The piano is played with a greater degree of detachment. A pianist does not have access to the level of intimacy in sound production which characterizes violin playing. There is a greater regularity in piano operation imposed by the complexity of its action. Piano performance tends to appear more symmetrical with the hands as mirrored versions of each other separated at some invisible point. There is little symmetrical in this sense about violin playing where the hands have quite different functions.

The theremin player never touches her instrument. What she engages is a phenomenon in its primary form. There is no instrument as such to be in physical contact with yet the theremin player is, like the violinist, always very close to the sound. This proximity to the sound without real tactile sensation is a problem that requires considerable mastery. Furthermore it is understood that playing the instrument requires compensating for the inherent tendency to glissando between desired pitches. Since there are no discrete divisions of the pitch range, pitches are arrived at with all intervening pitches equally audible unless amplitude is controlled during transition. This would be a technique of negation in which more is removed than is left for contemplation. The production of the sound is no longer a concern of the performer; it has rather become crucial to control an endless the flow of sound.

I also assume that playing an instrument in which there is no physical resistance presents problems that are as unique as those for instruments requiring sustained physical contact. Playing the theremin would require a fluidity of movement based on non-tactile feedback from sound and vision information. The performer must supply both movement and resistance to each sound. This may mean that an imaginary instrument needs to be created in the performer's mind in order to sustain the notion of naturalness of the sound production. Since much of the theremin's repertoire aesthetically belonged to the nineteenth century–with a vocal inclination–such a mind set seems probable.

Sound Accessibility

The piano keyboard is a refined mechanism that accommodates considerable physical disposition. From the delicate fingering techniques of seventeenth and eighteenth-century music to the upper body exertions of the Romantic and Twentieth-century bravura pieces, the keyboard appears as the point from which the performer must draw forth the sound. The sound itself needs massaging and coaxing and resists advances to become truly expressive in the manner of the violin, because the player will never be close to the origin of the sound. The formidable black box icon symbolizes the covert nature of sound production. For the listener, intimacy with the sound is a question of proximity. Everyone, including the performer, must go to the instrument, for as an immovable object it will never go to them. In its domestic setting, if it used regularly, may have a special place in the entertainment area, so people can "gather round".

But for all that, the instrument has an immense speaking range. From single glistening notes in the upper register to thunderous chords, it seems to echo its manufacture. The mechanical differences between the piano and the violin are the external signs of differing musical agendas. It is curious that the more one thinks about these instruments the less ideologically compatible they seem. The overt contrast between the instruments makes them attractive to composers as vehicles for conveying issues of duality.

One important issue that the three instruments illuminate is that of the correlation between sound construction and production. While this is obvious with the violin and piano, it is less clear that the theremin produces sound as a direct consequence of its electronic construction. Paradoxically, the theremin is not simply a controller for some arbitrary musical sound; the performer has a more immediate, constant and direct influence on the frequency and amplitude components than a pianist.

System Noise

An instrument is defined by the readily identifiable and desired sound it makes. There is a predominant sound that is taken to be the natural or primary sound of the instrument. Amid this sound there is the noise of the production of that sound and it significantly identifies the mechanical procedure to which the sound belongs. Instrumental noise is the sound of the instrument producing the sound which identifies it. These sounds generally occur concurrently with the desired sounds. There are certain instrumental noises that we accept as a consequence of the instrument that are not necessarily concurrent with production of musical sounds, such as the noise of the fingers on the strings and frets, and pedalling sounds. These extraneous sounds can be both irritating and reassuring. During recordings they can indicate proximity to the performer and an added sense of gesture.

The violin, the piano and the theremin have unavoidably noisy sound production mechanisms. The bow's contact with the strings produces a residual sound that is inseparable from the predominant violin sound. The piano action has levers, falling wooden parts and pedals whose sounds are masked during performance. The theremin has the noise of its electronic circuitry which is continuous and independent of the actual sound produced by that circuit during operation. Curiously, the sound of the theremin is the noise of the beating of two inaudible frequencies. There may also be some noise from the electronic circuitry but this would be generally continuous and become ignored as a consequence of operation.

Perception of Interaction

The violin, piano and theremin demonstrate conditions where pitch is presented in either a discrete or non-discrete form. The nature of this quantization has considerable impact on how performers relate to their instruments, the type of music composed to exploit this and the performer's insight. Although historical acoustic instruments have stable designs, the issue of quantization remains influential in the construction of the instrument.

The quantization of pitch on the piano draws attention to the notion of instances of sound that, after initiation, are beyond the performer's influence. Piano composition is about creating a dynamic sense of these instances. A violinist or thereminist has a continuous relation with a note, until they decide to terminate it. The temporal and organizational distribution of pitches that constitute a piano composition seeks to overcome the lack of continuous contact with the discrete sounds from their inception to termination. Music theory might have evolved in a very different direction if each string on the piano could be bent at will like a super guitar.

The subtlety and nuance of expression possible on the violin draws attention to its pitch range. Exactly why the violin has four strings may have something to do with an optimum number of strings to the usable pitch range. The complexity in producing an accurate sound on the violin is already significant without the addition of more strings. Although history has probably played a part in the stability of the violin's form, it is interesting to compare it with the lute. At the time of the violin's golden age, the lute was in decline. The Renaissance instrument of 6 or 7 courses (11 or 13 strings) had by the mid-eighteenth century become an instrument with doubled that number. This was principally an attempt to compete with the popularity of keyboard instruments.

For the violin it is difficult to see what more strings would achieve, apart from making it more difficult to play. If performers could handle more strings then some attempt to build and sustain those instruments would probably have been undertaken earlier in the instrument's history.

The violin epitomizes the difficulty of dealing with little discernible quantization and a curiously partitioned pitch range spread across four strings. The difficulty is initially identified in the time it takes to acquire the skill to play pitches accurately. The novice cannot rely on experience to position fingers precisely and must adjust the pitch by ear. This results in indecisive playing and marks someone as still uncomfortable with the fundamental issue of pitch selection.

The theremin presents a remarkable performance situation because all previous instruments required or demanded contact. Common practice instruments typically provide physical clues to the status of engagement in addition to the sound. With the theremin, positioning both hands in thin air, with no grip or contact, leaves the performer no choice but to listen and become acutely aware of the position of their arms and fingers. Thus theremin performance has shown that sight and sound are sufficient means on which to base musical expressive actions.

The idea that someone can learn a musical instrument without sound is far more peculiar and disturbing. It is certainly not possible with the theremin but the piano with its stationary pitch map and mechanical operation is suited to such learning processes. These practices have certainly prompted criticism:

The use of silent keyboards has been questioned by some authorities on the ground that the student, especially the beginner, cannot establish any relation between the tone produced and the method used if he cannot hear the sounds resulting from his efforts. 16
The desire for technical perfection has apparently led musicians to practice under abnormal conditions in order to improve one aspect of the performance, namely accuracy. The extraordinary and various lengths that performers go to suggests that instrumental interfaces by design, make demands for technical excellence that are not uniformly experienced by all performers. Some player would gain little benefit from a silent keyboard.

Anatomy of the Performer

Traditional musical instruments impose a range of physical demands on performers. The physical connection to an instrument is critical in representing a state of humanness with which the listener can identify. The sound an instrument makes is therefore the result of a transfer of energy from human to instrument. For the most part it is a "stylized" effort, for although the listener gains the impression that the performer has been through a very exhausting experience, it is understood as a "theatre" of emotional and mechanical stress. The performer has undergone the added trauma of manifesting the emotional content of the music through a mechanical process. An audience is generally aware of the difficulty of performance no matter how easy the performer makes it look. The entire procedure of presenting music is understood to be difficult. To have experienced a performance is to have witnessed a kind of miracle.

The diversity of human performers indicates that such things as the "ideal" performer run contrary to the intent of music. While a minimum physical disposition is required for most music there is considerable latitude and this should be reflected in performance. Some performers will have physical characteristics that facilitate the playing of certain compositions or passages in a work, while for others, it would be extremely difficult. The instrumental repertoire reflects the morphological diversity of humans.

The theremin, ironically, preempted the future. As the nascent virtual instrument, it gives a clear indication of the problems faced by a performer where no physical contact is necessary. The mode of sound production makes that unnecessary and the potential for subtle interaction is almost a matter of choreography on the part of the player. As a virtual instrument, it theoretically accommodates the most physically diverse group of practitioners imaginable. One could even conceive of it being played with the feet. 17 But there is, nevertheless, a contradiction in the notion of affecting something through playing air, irrespective of the degree of subtlety required. Where any movement to a point in space initiates sound variation, learning to be extremely conservative with movement would be a frustrating obstacle in the learning process. It is a stoical experience in which the performer cannot outwardly reflect the effect of the music upon him.

Concept of Difficulty

It is understood that musical instruments take time to master. Exactly how long depends on the individual, the instrument and the repertoire. Musical instruments initially present physical difficulties which slowly give way to those of interpretation. Traditional instruments rarely strike anyone as easy to play and the interesting repertoire always demands a level of proficiency that must be aspired to and not immediately attained. The act of playing is supposedly simple and direct and there is always some satisfaction in the experience. The performer learns there is a path of least resistance between the effort and musical result. The musical result corresponds to the will of the performer. Once one has reached a certain level of facility the interface changes. It no longer resists but reveals.

Coordination of the horsehair bow on gut strings with arbitrary finger placement on the neck is a demanding situation not easily mastered. Even ignoring the mechanical implications, the physical act of playing the violin seems awkward. Yet to an audience, the performer is physically connected to the musical result. The same can be said about piano and theremin performance. Once there is a common understanding of the difficulties to be overcome by the performer, watching a performance can significantly enhance the musical experience.

Our understanding of difficulty generally comes from the musical repertoire. Individual works set the standard of difficulty and it is assumed that gradual progress is made from simple to virtuosic works. Since the theremin does not possess such a specialized repertoire, the concept of difficulty needs to be assessed on the fundamental nature of performance on a piece by piece basis.

Performance Context

Bringing up the violin to the shoulder, drawing the bow down on the strings, are intimate acts. It announces the commencement of the musical experience in an initially silent embracing motion. It is as if the performer is requesting silence from the audience and beckoning for their attention. Of course, such stylized moments are common to every instrument. With the piano, the performer brings the hands to the keyboard and waits for the moment to begin. But here there is a kind of timidity about commencement because contact cannot be made with it until the work starts. For the violinist, contact with the instrument has has already been established. The violinist is close to the source of excitation and energy. They are in contact with the nascent sound.

We understand the concert hall to be the ideal context for witnessing such instrumental subtlety, but performances can take place in more humble settings and perhaps gain something in musical intimacy. This, of course, depends on the type and number of instruments needed for the performance, and the nature of the composition. Most of traditional western instruments are capable of functioning in a variety of venues.

The violin is an instrument for various musical settings. Since it is small and portable, it can go out and move among an audience. It can become a voice among many in an ensemble or go wherever the performer wishes. The piano is restricted to having to be put in the correct place from the start. It needs a particular environment in which to assume a kind of musical centrality and importance. It is designed to inhabit a particular space. In a similar sense, the theremin must also be placed in a particular position. It is to a degree portable and requires only that its speaker be placed in an advantageous position for both player and audience.


The Western musical tradition frequently suggests a distinction between the music and the instrument. In this way, music can be contemplated independently of concerns for interpretation and performance. It is an autonomous and abstract entity not subject to the inconsistencies of rendition. Each musical epoch appears to have, at its zenith, music that is technically challenging. Technical demands are infused with issues of mechanical development, stylistic interpretation and aesthetics. Adorno discusses compositional intention with respect to the technical capabilities of the instrument.

The [Bach] c-sharp minor fugue, which begins as though it were a dense network of equally relevant lines, the theme of which seems at first to be nothing more than the unobtrusive glue that holds the voices together, progressively reveals itself, starting with the entrance of the figured second theme, to be an irresistible crescendo, composed from beginning to end and climaxing with the mighty explosion of the main theme entering in the bass, the most extreme concentration of a pseudo-ten-voice stretto and the turning point of a heavily accented dissonance, in order then to vanish as though through a dark portal. No appeal to the acoustically static character of the harpsichord and organ can cover over the basic dynamism of the compositional structure itself, regardless of whether or not it could be realized as a crescendo on the instruments of the time, or even, as some idle question, whether Bach could have `thought' of such a crescendo. 18
Since the progress of performance technique is necessarily slow-being tied to a critical mass of instrumentalists, struggling under the demands of an increasingly complex repertoire–it is difficult to imagine music evolution bound exclusively to the nature of instrumental interfaces. The interface has traditionally developed as a consequence of musical thought.

It is interesting to observe that many of the masterpieces of western music are not the result of the composer's ability to perform perfectly their own works. It would appear to be a paradox that writing a significant and effective composition does not entail the same intimate knowledge of that instrument as possessed by a performer. Composition may be viewed then as a conceptual non-real-time performance–an engagement with the theory of the instrument without the pragmatic concerns of performance that would inhibit contemplation.

Creative Scope

An interface is never entirely revealed or accessible. A performer typically only engages a certain area of the bounded domain. Even within a particular style, limiting the engagement of the contact surface is crucial to the effective presentation of the music. There have been many attempts at defining the correct approach to interpreting the historical repertoire. Musical style has been generally kept a performer within certain technical and aesthetic bounds. This may alternatively be understood as interpretation of the interface.

The progression of Western music is particularly abundant in examples showing discovery and exploitation of the sounds of musical instruments. 19 Western culture, while preserving a musical canon, has been evolving towards a freedom of the interface through experimentation with new sounds from traditional, ethnic and contemporary instruments, thereby attaching meaning to new sounds.

Today, instruments also accommodate many styles concurrently. These styles may not necessarily depend on a radically sound from an instrument but rather exploit nuances of several techniques. One need only think of different piano styles: Classical, Jazz, Blues, Rock and Roll, to appreciate the way musical composition can redefine the performer/instrument interface.

The breadth of activity surrounding contemporary instrumental practice would appear to be a reversal of the status of instruments throughout most of their history. They are no longer the vehicles for conveying musical thought but have become the identity of musical thought. The instrument has become increasingly prominent in the expressive surface of the music.


It is impossible for any listener or performer to comprehend all levels of musical detail. The listener generally concentrates on the cumulative effect of this detail as the musical experience circumscribed by the composition. In the traditional concert setting, the performer is concerned with abstract issues of interpretation and context, and generally not with those of an elementary mechanical nature. The listener is tuning in for the unfolding of an experience which the performer is attempting to create. The performer is working towards the unification of the elements of interaction discussed in the previous section. Studying performer/instrument interaction involves isolating details throughout the musical experience. However, this continuum generally functions to convey more important statements about music than mechanical actions. Before the advent of audio and visual recording technologies, study of the dynamics of interaction was limited to studying scores and interpreting the music, where possible, on an instrument. Modern recording technology tends to complicate the analytical task because there is no way to map the sound onto any thing that describes how the instrument is played thus focusing the act of contemplation performance on the sound itself. Audio recording technology doesn't inform the listener of the performance act only the consequence of that act.

Something of the nature of the "instrumental" interface can be ascertained from a consideration of scores. This symbolic representation can illuminate the musician/instrument interaction in a way that is a reasonable substitute to having the instrument on hand, and the sound transfixed. This is how musical notation is intended to function for the performer, who from the outset is on a quest for the definitive interpretation. Later, in the more rarefied world of musical analysis, pragmatic concerns of the score get overlooked, and the notation is viewed as a means of understanding the "music" itself, in which case, exactly, how the instrument is played becomes a personal issue for the performer alone.

The score provides a means of studying instruments and sound in a way that excludes the presence of both, thus simplifying and focusing contemplation on the intention of the music. Notation is the hypothetical visualization of the auditory experience, and it has influenced our appreciation of the music by fostering the complex scenario of conformity, reproducibility and interpretation. We expect to hear a work played as it is notated. We also expect to hear it rendered differently, in a way that might reveal some other aspect of the work that, up until this time, has been hidden from us.

Common music notation is a coding of music which permits considerable freedom of interpretation. It functions as a symbolic reference for all those concerned with the music: the instrumentalist, the listener and the scholar. The score, however, does not clarify aspects of the instrument with which the reader has no familiarity. Although unfamiliarity with the technical issues of performance does not exclude someone from appreciating the significance of the music, it would be unusual for someone who had no specific instrumental knowledge to consider a score from the perspective of the instrument.

The score can often tell the reader a great deal about the instrument but only if the reader is able to extrapolate from the notation to the instrument. Such a task for a performer is facilitated by a knowledge of the physical instrument specifically and a knowledge about how and where the score might reveal instrumental characteristics. But suppose the reader has no idea what the instrument looks like. Is it possible to vicariously appreciate the instrument in a certain physical sense from the score alone? Might the score reflect something of the experience of playing the instrument? This depends, of course, upon the instrument and more importantly, what sort of contact a person has had with instruments and scores in general. With the orchestral collection, most people would be as familiar with the instruments as with their score notation. But it might be reasonable to expect that someone would get more out of several hours of study of a violin score than trying to play one for the same amount of time. This observation is based on the amount of effort needed to acquire a practical grasp of the instrument; naturally this would differ from person to person. But clearly a score contains specialized empirical data displayed in an manner that reflects correct instrumental technique, whereas studying an instrument–perhaps with the exception of the piano–is unlikely to reveal, in any dynamic way, performance technique, style or creative possibilities. The instrumental experience is dominated by a sensuality, a concern for the sensation rather than the logic of engagement. By logic I mean the understanding of the purpose in performance actions.

The following three brief score examples attempt to show how the notation describes an interface between the performer and instruments involved. In a sense it is like attempting to understand how the piece is played without having an instrument and conversely, a view of the music from the perspective of a performer.

J. S. Bach. Allemanda from the violin Partita in D minor. BWV 1004 20

Example 2.1 Opening 7 measures of Allemanda from the violin Partita in D minor.

The violin of Bach's time was some what different from the modern orchestral instrument. The differences were in the use of gut strings rather than steel and the strengthening procedures later employed to accommodate the strings. Such changes have a significant impact on the sensation of performance. A violinist suggested to me that these violin Partitas are easier to play on the Baroque violin because the performer is not struggling to articulate the detail of the composition as tends to happen on a steel strung instrument. This may be accounted for in the sound characteristics of the gut strings, their elasticity and dimension. To the performer, they have an altogether different feel which inspires a different attitude to playing the instrument.

A further notable point is the use of vibrato. It would appear that with gut strings, vibrato takes on the characteristic of an ornament rather than an intensification of the sound as it is generally understood with sound from steel strings. Steel strings tend towards a uniformity, purity and brightness of sound that eventually demands modification. Gut strings are less consistent in their construction, and tend to have a less sustaining upper frequency spectrum. The sound is less consistent and seems to approximate irregularities of human speech more convincingly.

The Allemanda is among many violin works that dispel the impression that the instrument is exclusively melodic. The contrapuntal writing suggests a transcendence of the instrument's melodic predisposition. In the opening four notes, three of which are the same, Bach primes the performer towards polyphonic thinking which extends throughout the Partita.

As the Allemanda begins (Ex. 2.1), the performer is immediately aware of a need to think of simultaneous rather than sequential events, even if the notation primarily suggest a melodic rather than polyphonic continuity of sound. Playing unison D's on the down beat of bar one, probably with a down-bow is an indication that the work must be thought of as more that one musical line or idea.

Example 2.2 Allemanda First Bar.

The timbral distinction between the first stopped D and the next stopped and open strings serves to emphasize the tonic and create a point of bifurcation from which the counterpoint will precede. One D ascends to E, while the other D later descends to the C#. Therefore the D that proceeds to the E cannot be understood as executed on the one string, in other words, the same physical place.

Furthermore, the performer cannot entirely forget the fingered D on the G string. The polyphonic construction necessitates that the C# be anticipated from the previous D. The end of bar 1 also sees an interesting registeral shift with the E, but on an open string it can be accommodated entirely by the bow. The finger on the G need not move.

Unisons are particularly characteristic of string and fretted instruments. The playing of an open string requires less coordination between hands. The left hand can, in fact, move into position for the next stopped note. This may appear to simplify performance but a stopped note, particularly chromatically adjacent, after an open note must be executed with some consideration for the musical context. Often interpreting a note as an open string would be impractical under certain fingering contexts. To achieve an efficient performance of this music through minimal finger adjustment, the performer must maintain an image of a contrapuntal space. Although autonomous parallel activities on the violin are limited, a contrapuntal illusion can be composed, projected and sustained by the skill of the performer.

The success of implied counterpoint on a primarily melodic instrument, depends upon whether the instrument is in some way polyphonic already. Obviously having more than one sound source (multiple strings), even if difficult to access simultaneously, meets the problem part way. But more subtle control, through access to changes in dynamics and timbre, promotes a greater degree of autonomy among the sound sources. In the case of the violin, they are affective with changes of string, various types of stopping, bow direction and control.

The overall physical movement of the left hand in this work and most violin pieces, is very little compared to the either hand on the piano. It is curious to note that what defines the width of keys on the piano is essentially the notion of a standard finger width (taken from some kind of empirical research) and the desire to crowd more keys onto a limited practical performance space. Such criteria is important to the violinist but cannot be so arbitrarily assigned by a manufacturer due to the physical nature of the division of a string.

A superficial glance at the opening bars of the Partita, suggests music for a melodic instrument. Exactly what instrument it was written for, is hard to discern. However, when the notation is examined in the light of performance practice, more is revealed about the physical nature of the instrument. This is obvious if one can "hear" also the music. But apart from that, there are subtle clues in the notation which indicate a more complex and restricted space than melodic writing would invoke. Through an analysis of the music, one could construct a plan of the important physical properties of the instrument. Some of the points are quite distinct and obvious, such as the unison D's, but others are more problematic. The following discussion looks at some of these points.

Large leaps such as the B flat–C# (2nd to 3rd beats, bar 1. Ex. 2.2) and C#–E (Beat 3, bar 6. Ex. 2.3) can be interpreted as far less problematic than they might appear if viewed from a keyboard or some other instruments. Such a leap followed immediately by a series of smaller steps might be a problem for a thereminist. In part, it is in the linear motion which harbors difficulties in timing and articulation of the two pitches without an intervening glissando. In effect, the linear movement is far less daunting to a performer if it is not primarily executed in a linear fashion. Such considerations underlie the concept of articulation that performers are accustomed to work out.

Example 2.3 Allemanda Opening fragment

The C#–E context (Ex. 2.3) is interesting because the motion continues upwards rather than changing direction. On a linear instrument like a piano or marimba, this requires not only movement of the fingers but of the hand and arm in an abrupt motion away from the initial low C#. On the violin, the E, which is a continuation of a higher contrapuntal line, could either be the open string or the E on the A string. Playing the open E would appear to be the easier option but might entail some technical or stylistic problems which would decide against it–whether one is using gut or steel strings. Nevertheless, on reaching the first G on the E string, the melody then drops to the A which might be the open string, returns to the G and descends to the E at the end of the bar. While the pitches in the last two beats of bar 6 are a melodic arpeggiation of the dominant seventh chord in first inversion, considering how this might be executed on the violin leads to an appreciation of its non-linear as well as linear physical pitch space. Pitch can be thought of as non-discrete along the strings and discrete from one string to another. Thus the pitch map can occasionally runs at right angles to the finger board. Pitch ordering is not in the same physical direction all the time as is the case with the piano or theremin.

Example 2.4 Allemanda Last two beats of measure 6.

While considerable discussion has centered around the left hand, it is clear from the notation that effective articulation of the polyphonic nature of the work must depend to a great extent on bowing. The bowing in the previous examples opens up the physical space and thus affects the music. The direction of the bow in example 2.3 can make a considerable difference to the separation of the lower from the upper phrases. I have been told by violinists that these works fall relatively easily under the fingers and that bowing is the difficult task.

It is clearly difficult to try to re-map traditional notation as a kind of tablature that shows exactly where the fingers and the bow should go, and at the same time illuminate the essential musical nature of the work. While tablature unequivocally details a relation between the performer and instrument, it fails to inform non-players about the music unless combined with other sources. It is primarily a notation for the aural tradition.

The failure of tablature to mature over time is indicative of some inherent weakness in its capacity to convey the higher-level ambitions of music. Whatever its abstract musical shortcomings might be, it is also obviously esoteric and prone to alienate rather than attract external musical contemplation. However, an argument in favour of tablature might emphasize the fact that it is specific to instruments and hence can convey more information about the process of performance: the way the instrument is played and idiosyncratic expressive detail not usually accessible to observers. As a visual representation of the state of the instrument at a particular time, a player might be better able to identify with the expectation of that state, in a sense to prepare for it. This already happens to some extent through special symbols and accompanying text, but these seem like compromises.

We accept such diversity from symbolic representations of language. Handwriting reflects a great deal about the author beyond the meaning of the words themselves. It is often more interesting to contemplate the execution of the message than the message itself.

Chopin. Ètude No. 1 in C major Op. 10

Example 2.5 Opening 2 measures of Ètude No. 1 in C major.
This work illustrates yet another mapping for a performer/instrument relation. The appearance of the score changes slightly to reflect a different instrument but the differences are not quite as dramatic as the physical differences between the instruments themselves.

The Ètude has attained a degree of aesthetic importance in the piano repertoire, and as a study, is characterized by a fixation on a technical concern which has become synonymous with the Romantic movement. The gesture, a sweeping motion in the right hand, articulates arpeggios up and down the keyboard which brings more of the body into the act of piano performance by forcing the performer to reconsider the question of balance and position. It is an activity which stimulates a consciousness of the upper body in order to facilitate the more pronounced arm movement. Overall, it promotes performance as a sensual and idealistic rather than an intellectual or traditionally spiritual act. Such grand sweeping movements are visually more interesting and less introverted and alienating than the complex finger work of preceding musical styles. There is a greater sense of the performer engaging the interface.

The Ètude initially exploits a sense of symmetry in the presentation of pitches and the nature of piano playing. It is characterized by "sustain" and "stability" in the left hand and "brevity" and "oscillation" in the right (Ex. 2.4). This is a classical exploitation of the keyboard as "pitch" map–left hand harmonic foundation and right-hand melodic detail. The most dramatic sense of ascent is typically achieved in the frequency range starting around the octave below middle C.

Example 2.6 Étude No. 1-First two bars notated to reflect the character of engagement of the interface. An arch traced in the right hand against an anchored left hand.

The fluidity of connections between the notes in the right hand is achieved through simplified finger selection. The hand rolls out the same fingers each time. The accented pivot point at the highest pitch generally falls on the first beat of the second bar in the 2-bar "arch" form but there are some interesting variations which signal changes throughout the work.

The Ètude displays a concern for the traversal of the landscape of the keyboard by dwelling on its natural division into octaves. The hand forms a mapping that internally defines this pitch space in a unique way. It drifts across, occasionally touching down but placing real emphasis on what would normally be the lightest point of contact, the key under the 5th finger. This is immediately followed by an oscillation back to the thumb which must not sound louder than the previous note. This is an awkward operation because the pianist must work against the natural weight of the hand even on the return direction.

The motion of the right hand should also counterbalance the weight of the arm. The hand rolls with a falling and rising motion away from the body and then returns with a similar motion. Playing piano is a workout with gravity in which it is either denied or overpowered. The violinist wrestles with this to some degree in the bow hand but in the left hand; strength is abstracted as kind of delicate grip. This issue of energy transfer is split by the different functions of the hands, arms and upper body.

The conventional quantization of pitch on the piano is, to a degree, re-configured in the motion of the hand, as a kind of "harmonic sweep". The capacity to bypass intervening pitches conflates the arpeggiation with an emphasis on the pedalled harmony underpinning the two bars. The envelope effect is produced through the fusing of internally excited elements but primarily defines a slowly moving harmonic structure.

The gesture takes two bars to complete. The left hand however, can change the process rate by supplying a new harmonic foundation at any time. Although it does very little compared with the right hand its effects are more immediate and dramatic.

With the entire pitch range laid out before the performer, it is possible to see the keyboard itself as a form of "dynamic" or "physical" or "three-dimensional" tablature notation. It is a notation of action or feel. Piano performance is to some extent about observing where and how the hands fall on this landscape. Very few other instrumentalists get as a good view of the way they play their instrument as do keyboard players.

Rachmaninoff. Vocalise - No. 14 from 14 songs. Op. 34 21

Example 2.7 Opening of Vocalise.

Rachmaninoff was one of the first composers to use the voice in a song without words. He was unclear or reticent to suggest what the music expressed, allowing the vocalist some latitude in interpreting the work. This openness makes it both an interesting and convenient work for theremin interpretation. But there is little about the score that suggests scope for a unique theremin interpretation.

This song without words highlights the theremin's capacity to render vocal nuances, particularly in the execution of detail, such as the trills in the bar before rehearsal 1 and again in the fourth to last bar. There is a peculiar mechanical smoothness of execution trill which while it hints at the quality of the soprano voice is without the natural quantizing effects of the human vocal tract, tongue, teeth and lips.

As for the theremin's contribution to the work, its timbre seems to impose a stylized and mannered effect on the expressive mood of the music, running the gamut from surreal to exaggerated, but rarely achieving an intense and convincing expressive quality. There is no significant aspect to the work that further reflects upon the idiosyncratic qualities of the instrument. The invention of the theremin in an age that welcomed technological innovation necessarily placed the instrument in an exhibitionist position. It was and remains a curiosity that tends constantly to demonstrate and justify its properties. Furthermore, it appeared to flourished without leaving a significant repertoire that may have defined it as a serious instrument. This repertoire would have included and exploited idiomatic characteristics which might have included unusual or dramatic use of glissandi. This was eventually to become the standard effect in Science Fiction cinema around the middle of this century.

Theremin glissandi are unique. What made them effective in films about the future was the feeling of disembodiment or ethereality that characterized the sound. On a string instrument, the extraneous "noise" would immediately identify a physical object undergoing external excitation. This noise surrounds the transformation of the object in the frequency domain and is characteristic of the fact that we almost always hear sounds in conjunction with other sounds. As insignificant as these noises might be to the listener, they add a sonic diversity that is clearly absent in the theremin. The glissandi are remarkably pure and pervasive. They seem to be present all the time, even when pitch changes are quite rigorously influenced by the amplitude. The theremin has no quantization and has difficulty implying it as I mentioned earlier with respect to the trill example. In this respect, a thereminist performing the Vocalise must work at approximating a singing-like interpretation.

The act and concept of playing the theremin were unlike those of any other instrument at the time of its inception. Even today it challenges the fundamental idea of instrumental control and our perception of the quantization of musical parameters. The only tangible way of knowing that something has happened is through listening. There is no intervening stage of contact to inform the practitioner about their state of interaction. The performer may, however, learn to sense the state of their arms and fingers poised in mid air. This is a curious form of performance self-reflection, unlikely to be encountered by other common-practice instrumentalists.


Taxonomical treatises on musical instruments of the world have created many classification schemes and modes of thought that seek to explain the cultural positions as well as the physical characteristics of musical instruments. While great diversity is evident from even the most cursory of considerations of this material, 22 it is equally apparent that world cultures, almost without exception, place a high value on those instruments that have both a long and complex tradition, and maintain a contemporary relevance.

The parallel evolution of musical instruments and the societies to which they belong empowers them with an abstract voice to transmit the cultural moment. Musical instruments are complex metaphors of a culture's status and an explicit communication medium which, like the telephone's, in even an idle form make a fundamental statement of Time and Place. They function as symbols and as voices, but their symbolic power comes from a repertoire which implies dissemination. Western culture has guarded and nurtured its canon of historically important musical instruments. New instruments, even subtle variants of their historical paradigms, tend to be treated with scepticism until the necessary impetus pushes them through the barrier of socio-cultural resistance, where they become mythologized and canonized. Musical instruments must first acquire authority to address the cultural moment then develop a language that can articulate the present. This is coincidental with the generation of a knowledge that sustains the instrument as it continues to evolve with the demands of musicians.

The traditional musical interface can be found in a tangible relation between the performer and the physical instrument and reflects a stylization of the extent to which a culture is willing to produce an abstract discourse of its existence. The manner in which musicians play instruments coincides with the amount of physical and intellectual effort a culture believes necessary to expend in order to articulate its achievements. The panoply of performance practice is the reification of moments in the cultural dynamic.

Underlying contemporary instrumental performance is an accumulation of diversity and sophistication in technique, style and aesthetic. In order for an instrument to remain extant in a culture it must evolve with that culture, yet must continue to encapsulate and reconcile its own history. It must appear to change and sometimes radically deviate–as in the case of the player piano–but this must simply serve to validate and strengthen the principle historical lineage. If this does not happen, an instrument will not survive. A musical instrument then is a shifting cultural interface between the past and the present and between the individual and society.


Studying aspects of traditional instrumental interfaces can teach us about those of the present and the future. Tradition can also have a debilitating influence on prospective contemplation by obfuscating concepts that do not follow certain evolutionary courses. Before moving on to the next chapter it is worth reviewing some historical implications.

The traditional instrumental interface is dependent on historical precedents. Alteration or removal of any of the elements that constitute the legacy raises serious questions about the authenticity, competency and authority of the instrument to speak from a historical perspective in the present. In maintaining a historical link, an instrument is suitably placed to interpret the present. However, instruments do undergo change. This is a curious duality, because the instrument loses historical authenticity but maintains contemporaneity. The status quo is challenged, but the changes accumulated become absorbed if they conform to a reasonable evolutionary trajectory.

All musical instruments absorb something of the technology of the moment. While the violin, piano and theremin are from different historical periods, in their contemporary manifestations they contain and reflect current technology in materials and manufacturing. There is a tacit acceptance that the process of technological updating will have no significant impact on the method of sound production, if the instrument is intended to maintain a historical position. But less obvious and identifiable is the degree of influence subtle technical changes have on the sound. The use of different materials, such as plastics, have some affect on the sound and extend the life of the components beyond previous expectations. Consequently, the time to maturity for the mechanical components has also changed. 23They may take longer to settle down but will last longer. Technical change is thus accepted on the understanding that the instrument is mechanically improving with a better quality of sound and lasting a longer period before maintenance is necessary.

Musical style has a profound influence on how the interface is accessed at both the compositional and instrumental level and seeks to transcend previous limitations. The listener may concentrate on the formal aspects of a work, the technique of the player or the performance environment but rarely dwells on how the sound is produced nor why this should result in a complex musical experience. Given that technology has changed the physical nature of the piano, it is interesting to appreciate how interpretation succeeds in neutralizing changes, as Ehrlich observes :

If we juxtapose these considerations of technology and technique it may be agreed that comparisons between old and new instruments have little meaning without reference to methods and standards of performance. For example, it is said that early pianos `speak' more easily and clearly, particularly in the bass, where individual notes of a chord are heard with a clarity denied the `woolly' modern instrument. Yet the technique of Arrau or Michelangeli makes nonsense of these claims. Any piano music can be satisfactorily played on a modern instrument with adequate technique and a sense of style. 24
Before this century the scope and enthusiasm for experimental sound production was limited to the means of the mechanical world. Instruments made sound through the direct and primitive approaches of plucking, striking, scraping, blowing in all their variations. 25 It is remarkable to think that the diversity of the world's instruments is based on a few fundamental modes of sound production. While this is a limitation, it is also the impetus for instrumental evolution and the many configurations of the performer/instrument interface. The diversity of the musical interface provides the initial perception of richness in the traditional instrument world. It transfigures the simple and ordinary sound-making facilities into something much more compelling and expressive. Composers and performers devote much of their time to issues of timbral variation and performance nuance, in order to create the substance upon which style and aesthetics depend.

Although air is blown into a flute it has to be done a certain way to produce the sound appropriate to the articulation of the canon of classical flute works. Playing the flute is a direct performance experience and is as close as we can get to producing sound through objects other than ourselves, thus avoiding the sense that we are unable to invoke many new processes to create natural sound. The imposition of style and aesthetic further slows down the rate at which that method of sound production becomes ineffectual as an expressive device.

The simplicity of the violin's mechanical operation and physical disposition, facilitates a perception of a unification of performer and instrument. This can be further enhanced by the natural style of the performer and the type of music. The piano's mechanism, in contrast, distances the performer from the physical activity of sound production. Putting a technology between the performer and the sound foreshadows the evolution of musical instruments towards the absence of physical processes other than the performer and the transduction of signals.

The nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries have thoroughly endorsed the appreciation of music as private communion–an intimate rapport between the composer, the performer and the listener. From the Romantic period on, the western musical mind has become sensitive to an expanded emotional and spiritual discourse in music. The performer was the necessary and only conduit through which the expression of the work could flow.

What becomes clear about musical appreciation is that the instrument itself and the crudities of performance had to be, or were simply minimized through a musical maturity, in order to create and sustain an expanded musical experience. Communion meant flawless discourse. The view of the performer and instrument as a channel through which abstracted emotion and experience might pass, on a journey from the composer/performer to the listener, necessitates a degree of transparency of function. The emergence of virtuosi and master musicians created both a transparency and opacity for the idea of a transcendence of human ability over technical obstacles. They made the obstacles of performance difficulty more tangible, but at the same time showed how they did not exist for them. The paradox cannot apply to a music where the conditions and values are not well understood, respected or assimilated. The future of music technology might therefore be in putting such obstacles back into the performance experience.

Endnotes to Chapter Two

  1. Paolo Peterlongo. The Violin. New York : Taplinger Publishing Co. 1979. There is an interesting map (p. 18) of the city center c .1730 showing the location of the makers and religious buildings.
    ––Joseph Wechsberg. The Glory of the Violin. New York : Viking Press. 1972. "The violin was created during the first part of the sixteenth century in the uninspiring region between Brescia and Cremona, in the Italian province of Lombardy". p. 19. return
  2. The legendary Fender range of guitars have been manufactured in Japan and Korea for the past decade. return
  3. Albert E. Wier. The Piano–Its History, Makers, Players and Music. London : Longmans, Green and Co. 1941. p. 72. return
  4. Cyril Ehrlich. The Piano: A History. Oxford : Clarendon Press. 1990. p.9. return
  5. Thomas. B. Holmes. Electronic and Experimental Music. New York : Charles Scribner. 1985. p.44. return
  6. Richard Dobson. In the entry for "Theremin" in A Dictionary of Electronic and Computer Music Technology. pp. 187-88. return
  7. Holmes, p. 78. return
  8. Ivor Darreg, and Bart Hopkin. "Still Nothing else Like it: The Theremin". in Experimental Musical Instruments. Bart Hopkin (ed). Vol VIII. #3. March 1993. pp. 22-26.
    ––Bonnie McNairn, and James Wilson. "A Simple Theremin From Schematic To Performance". in Experimental Musical Instruments. Bart Hopkin (ed). Vol VIII. #3. March 1993. pp. 26-27. return
  9. Cyril Ehrlich. p. 198. return
  10. Paolo Peterlongo. The Violin. p. 25. return
  11. previously mentioned that the theremin had a "future" history, and although it is no longer popular, it continues to exist in the consciousness of the contemporary musical community. It is therefore, possible that in a later incarnation, idiosyncratic works of some significance may be produced. I think the characteristic interface of the theremin does not completely exclude this possibility; however, it has to be assumed that the underlying technology will be different. return
  12. See next section 2.2 under Feedback and Mechanical Communication. In the liner notes to Clara Rockmore's CD The Art of the Theremin [CD 1014. Delos International. Santa Monica. CA. 1987] Robert Moog points out the importance of the speaker placement for the theremin player and the audience. For the performer to have a choice where the sound source of their instrument can be positioned is a curious phenomenon from the perspective of traditional instruments. In some ways it is like creating a new instrument. return
  13. Joel Chadabe. "Paths to a point in a Musical Landscape." Proceedings of the International Music and Technology Conference. Melbourne. Australia. 1981. pp. 2-12. Chadabe describes the use of modified theremins to control a digital synthesizer in a work he called "Solo" composed in 1978. return
  14. Robert Moog. Liner notes to Clara Rockmore. The Art of the Theremin. CD 1014. Delos International. Santa Monica. CA. 1987. p. 3. return
  15. Ibid., Moog. return
  16. Albert E. Wier. The Piano–Its History, Makers, Players and Music. 1941. p. 273. return
  17. Note that Theremin was responsive to calls to modify his instrument for a wider range of musical interfaces. In 1931, he responded to a request from Henry Cowell to produce a special keyboard device. This came to be known as the Rhythmicon. return
  18. Theodore W. Adorno. Prisms . Cambridge, Massachusetts : MIT Press. 1990. pp. 140-41. return
  19. Holmes notes the Jazz thereminist, Youssef Yancy, as "probably the most skilled performer on the modern theremin." p. 44. At the time of its development, the theremin would probably not have been thought a "Jazz" instrument. return
  20. J. S. Bach. Werke För Violine. BÙrenreiter Kassel Edition. 1958. return
  21. Theremin interpretation by Clara Rockmore. return
  22. Margaret J. Kartomi [see On Concepts and Classifications of Musical Instruments. Chicago : University of Chicago Press. 1990. ] provides an excellent overview of Western historical and indigenous means of classifying musical instruments. return
  23. This is more appreciable on instruments with considerable mechanical complexity, like the piano or the harpsichord. return
  24. Cyril Ehrlich, p. 25. return
  25. Even the transduction of electronic sound through a speaker is a simple mechanic operation. return

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