Into ‘microspace’ with Dorit Chrysler of the New York Theremin Society

Wicked vibrations

Austrian-born Dorit Chrysler, who's lived in New York City since 1984, is an acclaimed electronic musician, producer, and multi-instrumentalist. But her primary instrument is the theremin — that weird, science-fiction-looking and -sounding thing that's just some rods sticking out of a box that you play by moving your hands in the air around it. Dorit's theremin chops have sent her all over the world — from Vienna to Asheville, N.C. — as well as into studios with the likes of Marilyn Manson and J. Mascis.

Chrysler is visiting Detroit in order to collaborate here — in fact, to participate in the grant-funded recording project initiated by local electro duo Adult. And while she will perform her own engaging style of experimental pop chanteusery at 8 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 18, at MOCAD, she's also giving three special theremin workshops for children, as an extension of her Kid Cool Theremin School. The workshops will each last approximately 45 minutes and will take place at noon, 1 p.m., and 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan 18, in the Mike Kelley Mobile Homestead at MOCAD, 4454 Woodward Ave., Detroit;; 313-832-6622; admission is $25. [UPDATE: Since publication, Dorit Chrysler's workshops for children have all sold out.]

Metro Times: How might you explain what a theremin is to an adult who's not sure?

Dorit Chrysler: The theremin was one of the first electronic instruments, invented by Léon Theremin in Russia in 1919. It is the only instrument you play without ever touching it. The slightest, tiniest movement of your body is translated into sound once you enter the electromagnetic field that surrounds the instrument. Close your eyes, stand still, and move your hand towards the antenna. You dive into microspace, and hear the tremors of your own body.

MT: And, since you work with children, how do you explain the same thing to them?

Chrysler: The same. Only I also tell them to try play the instrument with any part of the body. You can imagine the rest!

MT: This instrument seems singular in that anyone with a physical body and the ability to move their limbs can play the thing, so the entry to it is super low in that regard. And yet, it seems that very few people have mastered it.

Chrysler: Well, a cat can also walk on the keys of a piano and make sounds. The theremin does seem accessible and spawns a lot of imagination through its unusual way of triggering sound. But to utilize its full potential and to make it sound beautiful, (it can be an extremely expressive and luscious-sounding instrument) you have to stick with it and approach it with practice, just like any other instrument. Supposedly it is much harder to play than other instruments, hence its lack of popularity.

MT: When did you first encounter the instrument yourself?

Chrysler: The first theremin I ever saw was standing at my friend Lary 7's house in New York City; he had it there for repair and demonstrated it to me. First I laughed, and then I marveled. And within minutes I was so drawn to its quixotic character, I wanted to take it on!

MT: At what point did you fall in love with it?

Chrysler: Oh, right there and then. I tend to get easily excited, but my love and dedication for this instrument will never leave. Maybe I also feel defensive and want to make a case, as so many people still underestimate the theremin's musical potential.

MT: How does that thing work, aside from magic, anyway?

Chrysler: You mean the ether waves? The theremin uses the heterodyne principle to generate an audio signal. The instrument's pitch circuitry includes two radio frequency oscillators. One oscillator operates at a fixed frequency. The frequency of the other oscillator is controlled by the performer's distance from the pitch control antenna.

MT: When did you first feel like you knew what you're doing with it?

Chrysler: This instrument truly teaches you that you cannot control anything, as there is nothing to hold onto. That said, my neighbor is complaining much less these days. I think he truly suffered when I first started to practice some years ago. Personally I fret over every note, and my playing is never as perfect as I'd like it to be.

MT: Why is it that this instrument that's many decades old always sounds futuristic?

Chrysler: Maybe because it is the only electronic instrument that can sound really emotional, so close to a human voice, or perhaps your inner voice of madness? That, coupled with its unusual sound generation, how not touching anything seems to defy physics at first sight. It taps into something primal; I call it the "Houdini effect."

MT: Will you also be bringing that big modular suitcase synthesizer you play with you when you perform at MOCAD?

Chrysler: Lately, I do like to combine the [high-pitched] theremin with the big low sound and physicality of the Moog Taurus bass pedal. They complement each other perfectly. Ideally, I play the theremin with my hands and the bass pedal with my feet. The Moog Taurus is so heavy it is impossible to take on a plane, so I usually borrow one when I perform elsewhere. That reminds me, I have not found the Taurus owner in Detroit just yet but I know she or he is out there!

MT: How did your Kid Cool Theremin School come about?

Chrysler: It is a no-brainer to teach children the theremin. I am surprised it has not been done before, but ours is the first theremin school in the U.S. Here is an instrument with no fear or barrier, as there's no right or wrong way to play it. It basically teaches you to trust your own ears and to listen, plus it is very physical and really spawns imagination.

Discovering Bruce Haack's electronic records for children was also a big inspiration, as well as my own kid playing the instrument, standing around in our apartment. I am in awe of some of our long-term students, who are so dedicated and inspired. I do hope it spawns a new generation with a different and completely natural take toward electronic music. I wish I could have encountered a theremin at age 5!

MT: What do you think your workshop with kids in Detroit is going to be like?

Chrysler: The dynamic of each group is so different depending on the individual critters. But in general, the little ones — age 4 to 6 — have a lot of fun pretending to be different animals and playing those sounds on the instrument. They also mimic the sounds of robots and space rockets and just have so much fun!

About The Author

Mike McGonigal

Metro Times music editor Mike McGonigal has written about music since 1984, when he started the fanzine Chemical Imbalance at age sixteen with money saved from mowing lawns in Florida. He's since written for Spin, Pitchfork, the Village VOICE and Artforum. He's been a museum guard, a financial reporter, a bicycle...
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