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TED2002

Pamelia Kurstin: The untouchable music of the theremin

February 2, 2002

Virtuoso Pamelia Kurstin performs and discusses her theremin, the not-just-for-sci-fi electronic instrument that is played without being touched. Songs include "Autumn Leaves," "Lush Life" and David Mash’s "Listen, Words Are Gone."

Pamelia Kurstin - Theremin player
Pamelia Kurstin excavates a dusty artifact from the prehistoric strata of electronic music -- and demonstrates how to squeeze soul from an instrument you can't even touch. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
(Music)
00:12
(Applause)
05:20
Thank you. Ooh, I'm like, "Phew, phew, calm down. Get back into my body now." (Laughter)
05:35
Usually when I play out, the first thing that happens is
05:40
people scream out, "What's she doing?!"
05:44
I'll play at these rock shows, be on stage
05:47
standing completely still, and they're like,
05:50
"What's she doing?! What's she doing?!"
05:52
And then I'll kind of be like -- (Vvvwow!) -- and then they're like, "Whoa!"
05:55
(Laughter)
05:59
I'm sure you're trying to figure out,
06:01
"Well, how does this thing work?"
06:05
Well, what I'm doing is
06:07
controlling the pitch with my left hand.
06:11
See, the closer I get to this antenna, the higher the note gets --
06:18
(Portamento) --
06:23
and you can get it really low.
06:26
And with this hand I'm controlling the volume,
06:28
so the further away my right hand gets, the louder it gets.
06:31
(Tones)
06:35
So basically, with both of your hands
06:38
you're controlling pitch and volume and kind of
06:40
trying to create the illusion that you're doing separate notes,
06:44
when really it's continuously going ...
06:48
(Flourish ... Beep)
06:50
(Laughter)
06:54
Sometimes I startle myself: I'll forget that I have it on,
07:03
and I'll lean over to pick up something,
07:05
and then it goes like -- (Blip) -- "Oh!"
07:08
And it's like a funny sound effect that follows you around
07:11
if you don't turn the thing off.
07:14
(Laughter)
07:16
Maybe we'll go into the next tune,
07:21
because I totally lost where this is going.
07:25
We're going to do a song by David Mash called "Listen: the Words Are Gone,"
07:29
and maybe I'll have words come back into me afterwards if I can relax.
07:34
(Music)
07:38
(Applause)
10:32
So, I'm trying to think of some of the questions
10:44
that are commonly asked; there are so many.
10:47
And ... Well, I guess I could tell you
10:49
a little of the history of the theremin.
10:52
It was invented around the 1920s, and the inventor, Léon Theremin
10:54
-- he also was a musician besides an inventor --
11:00
he came up with the idea for making the theremin,
11:05
I think, when he was working on some shortwave radios.
11:10
And there'd be that sound in the signal -- it's like (Screeching) --
11:14
and he thought, "Oh, what if I could control that sound
11:17
and turn it into an instrument, because there are pitches in it."
11:21
And so somehow through developing that,
11:25
he eventually came to make the theremin the way it is now.
11:28
And a lot of times, even kids nowadays,
11:35
they'll make reference to a theremin by going, "Whoo-hoo-hoo-hoo,"
11:39
because in the '50s it was used in the sci-fi horror movies,
11:43
that sound that's like ... (Woo-hoo-hoo-hoo)
11:45
(Laughter)
11:49
It's kind of a funny, goofy sound to do.
11:52
And sometimes if I have too much coffee,
11:58
then my vibrato gets out of hand.
12:00
You're really sensitive to your body and its functions
12:02
when you're behind this thing.
12:05
You have to stay so still if you want to have the most control.
12:07
It reminds me of the balancing act earlier on -- what Michael was doing --
12:10
because you're fighting so hard to keep the balance
12:15
with what you're playing with and stay in tune, and at the same time
12:18
you don't want to focus so much on being in tune all the time;
12:24
you want to be feeling the music.
12:27
And then also, you're trying to stay very, very, very still
12:30
because little movements with other parts of your body
12:34
will affect the pitch, or sometimes if you're holding a low note -- (Tone rising out of key) --
12:38
and breathing will make it ...
12:45
(Laughter)
12:48
If I pass out on the next song ...
12:49
(Laughter)
12:52
I think of it almost like
12:54
like a yoga instrument because it makes you so aware
12:58
of every little crazy thing your body is doing,
13:01
or just aware of what you don't want it to be doing
13:05
while you're playing; you don't want to have any sudden movements.
13:10
And if I go to a club and play a gig, people are like,
13:14
"Here, have some drinks on us!"
13:17
And it's like, "Well, I'm about to go on soon;
13:19
I don't want to be like -- (Teetering tones) -- you know?"
13:22
It really does reflect the mood that you're in also,
13:26
if you're ...
13:29
it's similar to being a vocalist, except
13:31
instead of it coming out of your throat,
13:34
you're controlling it just in the air
13:36
and you don't really have a point of reference;
13:38
you're always relying on your ears and adjusting constantly.
13:41
You just have to always adjust to what's happening
13:46
and realize you'll have bummer notes come here and there
13:48
and listen to it, adjust it, and just move on,
13:52
or else you'll get too tied up and go crazy. Like me.
13:55
I think we will play another tune now.
14:04
I'm going to do "Lush Life." It's one of my favorite tunes to play.
14:09
(Music)
14:12
(Applause)
19:02

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Pamelia Kurstin - Theremin player
Pamelia Kurstin excavates a dusty artifact from the prehistoric strata of electronic music -- and demonstrates how to squeeze soul from an instrument you can't even touch.

Why you should listen

The theremin, the first electronic instrument ever invented, was on the brink of historic oblivion when it was rescued from obscurity by director Steven Martin's classic 1994 documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey . And while a few brave souls have sought to master this temperamental instrument since then, none have done so with more sly effervescence than Pamelia Kurstin.

From the rock-steady composure she assumes behind the instrument (necessary lest her breathing drive the sensors out of tune), one might presume a shrinking conservatory personality, but a quick glance at the MySpace page of the self-described "bird-punching rollerskating thereminist" will quickly dash any of these quaint notions. Far from being a quirky curiosity, however, Kurstin is a sensitive, emotional stylist capable of coaxing sublime melodic content out of an instrument usually doomed to B-movie sci-fi soundtracks. (And her walking bass imitation is pretty cool too.)

Born in Los Angeles, Kurstin currently resides in Vienna, and performs with her latest project Blueblut, among many others. Her latest solo CD, Thinking Out Loud, was released in 2007 on John Zorn's legendary Tzadik label. She'll bathe your dog and give you a haircut ("if you're daring," she warns) in exchange for a six-pack.

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