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Theremins: Looking for players, gaining fans

September 25, 2003|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

When Kevin Lee built a theremin from a kit five years ago, it was the first time he'd ever touched one of the electronic instruments.

And the last.

OK, that's what has to pass for theremin humor. See, it's the only instrument that is played without any physical contact. The thereminist (or whatever you call a theremin player) manipulates the pitch and other qualities of the sound by waving his or her hands alongside two little antennae protruding from a box, thereby "shaping" an electromagnetic field.

In terms of respect, it's been sort of the musical saw of the electronic world. For one thing, it looks easy to play (it's not). And it hasn't helped that the most prominent use of theremins (or whatever the plural is of "theremin") has been to make the spooky sci-fi glissandos in soundtracks from "Forbidden Planet" through "Mars Attacks," though to '60s pop fans it holds a place of honor for providing the distinctive oooo-weeee-oooo lines in the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations."

That's where Theremin Night this Sunday at the Bigfoot Lodge comes in, showcasing three acts -- each using the instrument to vastly different effect.

With San Francisco group Project: Pimento it's in the context of space-age lounge music with a variety of exotica, pop and TV themes ("Peter Gunn," "Star Trek").

Charlie Lester, considered L.A.'s top professional thereminist, has applied his virtuosity to many TV and film soundtracks and recitals of classical and pop standards.

And Lee's Seksu Roba is an L.A. duo seeking to incorporate theremin as an organic, integral element in electronic dance music.

Both Lee and Lester cite the 1995 documentary "Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey," which chronicled the instrument from its invention in the 1920s by Russian physicist Leon Theremin, as the epiphany that led to their involvement. Lee was further pushed when about five years ago he saw a show at the Hollywood Athletic Club in which the bands Moog Cookbook and Geggy Tah featured theremin players. Shortly thereafter, he ordered a kit from Robert Moog, the inventor of the Moog synthesizers.

Now Lee hopes this Bigfoot Lodge show might inspire others.

"We've been wanting to do this kind of thing more often, wanted to do a show like this for a while," he says. "But it's hard to find performers, period. And people still don't know what this is. It's usually, 'What is it?' 'Did you build it?' 'Where can I get one?' 'How do you do that?' -- that's a common one. People I know ask that a lot."


Theremin Night

What: Performances by Project: Pimento, Charlie Lester and Seksu Roba

Where: Bigfoot Lodge,

3172 Los Feliz Blvd., Los Feliz

When: Sunday, 8 p.m.

Info: (323) 662-9227 or

On theremins: (Charlie Lester)

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