Monday, February 13, 2006

Juggling in a Theremin's Field

Last year, in March, I was able to try out an idea I'd had for a while: to juggle in a Theremin's field. A Theremin is a musical instrument that produces sounds based on your body's interaction with a pair of electromagnetic fields. You wave your hands in the air. You get weird oscillating sounds that will be familiar to you if you have a background in old science fiction movies.

At some point, I decided that I ought to be able to find someone with a Theremin through various contacts. It was easier than I thought it would be: I put the word out on the Texas Juggling Society mailing list, and I got a response from someone who knew someone who played Theremin. The only trouble I had was that it took weeks for us to actually hook up with our varying schedules.

It was a little odd, because the fellow with the Theremin only referred to himself by his e-mail handle, Nobody. And he showed up to my house in an art van, handpainted all over in a brick pattern. But he was in the suburbs on my turf, so it was okay. It was nice of him to come out to my place for the experiment -- I was kind of stapled to the house by the kids; Tanya was out doing something.

"Nobody" was really nice about it. He set the Theremin up and we experimented with it.

The results were...not tremendously exciting. Luckily I wasn't expecting TOO much. I already knew that Theremin are quite difficult to play. The visit confirmed that, in spades.

The Theremin responds to movement of conductive things near its two antennae. That basically means your arms. It puts out a constant wave of sound, and you modulate it by moving your body within its field.

One antenna controls pitch, the other volume. By adjusting dials, you can control, to some extent, the size of the region where your movement affects the device.

Something I didn't know until the experiment was that by default, when the machine is on, you have to keep a hand near the volume antenna or else you get a loud wave. When your hand is low, near the antenna, the Theremin is silent; you raise it to get a note.

Juggling 3 balls cascade-style over the Theremin produced a rhythmic, repeated note. The circular shower pattern produced, naturally, a faster rhythm. Other ball trials resulted in a sine wave sound, when I moved nearer the pitch antenna.

I suspect you could do some neat things with site swaps, but I don't do much with those. I was a bit inhibited by not wanting to drop things on the guy's Theremin.

I quickly learned that for the Theremin, you want to exaggerate your body movements, and that ordinary juggling doesn't produce a lot of response from the machine.

However, it was clear that you could develop an interesting routine that incorporated a Theremin. It would be a fair amount of work, though.

Watching "Nobody" play the Theremin was pretty interesting. He used a technique that looked like he was playing the frets of a string insrument, or fingring a woodwind...seeking out specific notes in midair.

Waving my arms like a conductor over the thing produced some fun sounds, too.

The whole thing sounded much better after he wired in a digital delay. That made everything sound good.


  1. Nice post! Do you have any sound samples from the juggling session? Blogged at today.

  2. Nope, didn't think to record anything.