22 August 2006
SETI League
PriUPS Project


Theremin Thoughts

Time goes by so very fast,
And you know your younger years won't last,
So take these childhood dreams as they come,
And learn to live each day one by one. 

Amazingly, the Blues Magoos lyric above, from 1966 or so, postdates most of this story.  I'm not much of a wallower, but I allow myself the occasional bit of nostalgia on the appropriate occasion.  This is one of them.

So far as I know, I have no charisma with musical instruments.  I can pick out a tune on a piano (slowly, inaccurately) and know one guitar chord, although I confess that I've forgotten what it's called.  However, there is an "instrument" that I once fancied I might be able to play.  It's called the "Theremin."  The Theremin is played by waving one's hands in space.  Its two antennas respond to hand position, one by changing the frequency (pitch) of the emitted sound, the other by changing its amplitude (loudness).  It took the actual construction of one of these instruments to disabuse me of any notion that I would be able to coax music from it.  I don't recall too many details of the project, although I suspect I found the plans in the then-thriving magazine "Popular Electronics" or one of its plentiful kin.  Being somewhat more sanguine about my musical talents then, I decided that my failure might be attributable to the Theremin that I constructed.  Perhaps its circuitry lacked sensitivity or stability.  (To be sure, that might have been true as well.)  I was unable to accomplish anything remotely musical with the device; I couldn't even play along with Good Vibrations because it hadn't been written yet.

Time went by at a modest rate, my younger years were exhibiting surprising durability, and I was too busy to comply with the Blues Magoos quotation, above, which in any event shared Good Vibrations' lack of existence at that time.  Under circumstances I no longer recall, and which were probably fortuitous, I found myself on a pilgrimage to Trumansburg, New York.  Undoubtedly the motive was Theremin-related, for Trumansburg was the home and business location of a fellow named Bob Moog, a physicist-turned-tinkerer.  Moog was an expert on the Theremin, and was selling them whole and in parts.  He had a big room on the ground floor of a building there, and I and a friend dropped in, unexpected and uninvited.  Perhaps because public interest in Theremins was less than acute, and Trumansburg was not the metropolis then that it has no chance of becoming now,  Moog was hospitable to his visitors, and we enjoyed some conversation and had the opportunity to try a "professional" Theremin. 

I wish I could relate the visit in greater detail, but so many decades have passed that even if this didn't happen in "The Sixties" I'd have a good excuse.  I do recall one crucial detail:  The curtain.  The rear of Moog's space was partitioned by a black curtain.  Before we left, we were invited to look behind the curtain.  And there we saw his secret project:  A device called a "synthesizer."   I would love to say that I realized I was in the presence of History, but the closest I will get to saying it is having just said it.  I don't remember how similar it was in appearance to the evolved versions we saw in studios and on stage with ELP.  Probably not very.  And there was certainly no "Minimoog."  Moog, in fact, wasn't a noun, just a guy's name.  A nice guy, to be sure, who, viewing us as kindred spirits, or perhaps as innocuous, ushered us into the sanctum and showed us the future.  Some months later I discovered an article by Moog in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society which explained the theoretical basis of his synthesizer and, not coincidentally, provided a significant part of the knowledge and impetus that set me on my career path.

The Blues Magoos wrote their lines.  The Beach Boys released Good Vibrations.  Although I ended up in a similar business to Bob Moog, we would only run into each other on rare, rushed occasions, and never really had occasion to exchange more than a "Hello."  Time went by, accelerated, and has turned into a blur.  So much of a blur that when I happened to think of the Theremin, I said to myself "Didn't Bob Moog just die a few months ago?" 

Yes, at least for large values of "a few."  Bob Moog died a year ago today.  What became of that year I have no idea; I can account for a few days at most.  Moog's business, and the industry he helped create continues to exist, but, sadly, one of its founders does not.  The System strikes again. 

Moog is dead.  Long live the Moog!

Richard Factor