The theremin is an enigmatic instrument. Players don't even touch it, but rather wave their hands mysteriously about the device -- like a cross between a magic trick and a Vulcan mind-meld. Most often, it's heard providing atmosphere in studio-produced pop or in spooky sci-fi movie soundtracks.
But when Russian scientist Lev Termen (later known as Leon Theremin) first publicized his electronic gadget in the U.S., in the '20s, he fully intended it to become prominent, even possibly replacing the entire orchestra. Requiring careful manipulation of the vertical and horizontal axes (pitch and volume), mastering the theremin took expert hand control and perfect pitch, suggesting that it was ideal for virtuosity and a solo spotlight.
The Bonzo Dog Band and Led Zeppelin were featuring the theremin on their albums in the mid-'70s when musician Eric Ross began working the instrument into both composed works and jazz improvisation. By 1982, he had used it on his first solo album, Songs for Synthesized Soprano. Ross then combined forces with jazz trumpeter and theremin player Youseff Yancy, and struck up friendships with original theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore and synthesizer genius Bob Moog.
Ross' odyssey came full circle in 1991, when he met and performed for Leon Theremin himself, who had finally returned to the States after 50 years, just in time to witness a great revival of interest in his invention.
These life-changing experiences moved Ross to become one of the major living proponents of the theremin, a task which has taken him around the world. He's played with jazz greats John Abercrombie and Andrew Cyrille, New Music luminary Robert Dick, Japanese techno-symphonic pop artist Aqi Fzono, and even blues guitarist Lonnie Brooks. His collaboration with Dr. Theremin's niece, Lydia Kavina, yielded an overture for the largest assemblage of theremins ever -- a whopping 14.
Out on the solo performance and lecture circuit, Ross often brings along his wife, Mary, who has been creating video and computer art since the pre-MTV era. They've taken this joint effort to top-flight venues such as Kennedy Center. "I design my video to accompany Eric's music, so it's more of an integrated package," Mary Ross explains. "My work is all about imaginative imagery -- it's somewhat abstract, but there are recognizable elements."
An Evening of Live Theremin Music by Eric Ross. Performance: 8 p.m. Fri., Dec. 8 (The Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side, $7, 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org). Lecture: 12:30 p.m. Thu., Dec. 7 (AJ Palumbo Hall of Science and Technology, Carlow College, Oakland, free, 412-578-6076).
- Good vibrations: Eric Ross