Soviet Edison takes Music from the Air

Before the first commercial radio broadcast, when vacuum tubes were large, expensive, and short-lived, Leon Theremin invented the first electronic instrument.  Two antennas respond to the position of the hands, one for volume, one for pitch, without the need to touch the antennas.  Anyone could make sound from it, and the most difficult thing is to get used to how exquisitely sensitive it is, so that tiny movements make notes of the scale.

The headline above came from a newspaper review after the 1928 Carnegie Hall debut by Леон Теремин himself.

The theremin has experienced a renaissance in the last 10 years.  Its sounds can be made more like a human voice than any other instrument.  Theremins excel at slow, sentimental melodies in the soprano range

but it’s not possible to play quick, exciting music on the theremin because no one can jump the hand with sufficient control.

(When she rises an octave for the second time through, all the hand motions have to be twice as precise as the first time.)


Gubaidulina and Berio

Some of the 20th Century’s most innovative composers were born the last week of October:  George Crumb, Dominick Argento, Ned Rorem, Howard Hanson, not to mention Georges Bizet, Nicolo Paganini and Johann Strauss from the last century and a personal favorite of mine, Domenico Scarlatti from the Baroque era.

Today we celebrate two weavers of new sound tapestries, composers who keep us engaged with unexpected textures.  Sofia Gubaidulina, turning 86 today, is still  composing and Luciano Berio, born this day in 1922, left us a treasure of experiments in sound.

Peter Quince at the Clavier

Listen to Dominick Argento’s setting of Wallace Stevens

Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the selfsame sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.

Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,

Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna:

Of a green evening, clear and warm,
She bathed in her still garden, while
The red-eyed elders, watching, felt

The basses of their beings throb
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.

In the green water, clear and warm,
Susanna lay.
She searched
The touch of springs,
And found
Concealed imaginings.
She sighed,
For so much melody.

Upon the bank, she stood
In the cool
Of spent emotions.
She felt, among the leaves,
The dew
Of old devotions.

She walked upon the grass,
Still quavering.
The winds were like her maids,
On timid feet,
Fetching her woven scarves,
Yet wavering.

A breath upon her hand
Muted the night.
She turned—
A cymbal crashed,
And roaring horns.

Soon, with a noise like tambourines,
Came her attendant Byzantines.

They wondered why Susanna cried
Against the elders by her side;

And as they whispered, the refrain
Was like a willow swept by rain.

Anon, their lamps’ uplifted flame
Revealed Susanna and her shame.

And then, the simpering Byzantines
Fled, with a noise like tambourines.

Beauty is momentary in the mind—
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.

The body dies; the body’s beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of winter, done repenting.
So maidens die, to the auroral
Celebration of a maiden’s choral.

Susanna’s music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death’s ironic scraping.
Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.

Wallace Stevens was born this day in 1879


So you want to write a fugue…

Master of intellectual humor and a bunch of other things, Glenn Gould anticipated P. D. Q. Bach.

Today would have been Glenn’s 85th birthday.


I was brought up as a Presbyterian; I stopped being a church-goer at about the age of eighteen, but I have had all my life a tremendously strong sense that, indeed, there is a hereafter, and the transformation of the spirit is a phenomenon with which one must reckon, and in the light of which one must attempt to live one’s life.  As a consequence, I find all here-and-now philosophies repellent.  On the other hand, I don’t have any objective images to build around my notion of a hereafter, and I recognize that it’s a great temptation to formulate a comforting theory of eternal life, so as to reconcile oneself to the inevitability of death.  But I like to think that’s not what I’m doing.  For me, it intuitively seems right; I’ve never had to work at convincing myself about the likelihood of a life hereafter. It is simply something that appears to me infinitely more plausible than its opposite, which would be oblivion.  — Glenn Gould