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December 08, 2016
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Playing with the ether; Theremin performance heading to Honesdale

Thereminist Jason Smeltzer, left, will be joined by pianist Wayne Smith for the performance.
Contributed photo by Janelle Rought

HONESDALE, PA — “It’s easy to embarrass yourself, but I’m willing to fall on my face,” quipped Jason Smeltzer while describing the process of performing on an unusual and little-known instrument called the theremin. The early electronic instrument’s most characteristic feature is the fact that it is played without physical contact from the performer.

The public will have an opportunity to experience the theremin during a performance at Grace Episcopal Church on Courthouse Square in Honesdale at 7 p.m. on November 17.

Named for its Russian inventor, Professor Leon Theremin, who patented the device in 1928, the theremin is a forerunner of the modern synthesizer. Often used in sci-fi movie soundtracks, the instrument produces a distinctive eerie sound.

A theremin is played by moving one’s hands in the proximity of two metal antennas. The distance from one antenna determines pitch, and the distance from the other controls volume. Audio signals are amplified through a loudspeaker.

Described on Wikipedia as “easy to learn but difficult to master,” playing the instrument involves controlling pitch without the guidance of keys, valves or frets, while minimizing the instrument’s tendency to shift tone due to its design. Pitch control is challenging because a theremin can generate tones of any pitch, including those that lie between conventional notes.

Playing a theremin skillfully requires a certain “spatial intuition,” to the instrument, according to Smeltzer, who continues to explore this aspect.

Robert Moog, an early electronics enthusiast, began building theremins in the 1950s, which led to the creation of his groundbreaking synthesizer, the Moog. Right before Moog died, he came out with a professional version of the theremin, which Smeltzer invested in and found somewhat disappointing. “It lacked a certain believability,” said Smeltzer, who prefers his original theremin. “We understand one another.”

Smeltzer bought that theremin a decade ago primarily “as a joke.” An interest in early electronic instruments led to some online tinkering where he came across the instrument and bought it for $300. Fascinated with his find, he began conducting research and “disappeared for three years into a semi-deliberate, self-imposed exile,” during which he perfected his ability to play the mystifying instrument.

After re-emerging, Smeltzer has been performing on and demonstrating the theremin. Raised on an organic farm in Harford, PA, Smeltzer now resides in Scranton where he repairs musical instruments at Cliff Girard Music. One of the few American masters of the theremin, Smeltzer has received several arts grants from the Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts. In collaboration with illustrator Ted Michalowski, he performs every summer in Poland.

During the Honesdale performance, Smeltzer will be joined by pianist, improviser and composer Wayne Smith. A native of Brooklyn, NY, Smith grew up in Westfield, NJ. He has appeared recently as a featured guest on WVIA public radio and has performed in Korea and Japan. A resident of Pennsylvania since 2004, Smith’s performances can be heard on both LP and CD recordings.

The Honesdale performance may feature classical music, Middle Eastern dance music, R&B and Jazz Fusion, with a heavy dash of improvisation that could lead anywhere. “You never know exactly what will happen,” said Smeltzer, whose mischievous approach is sure to make for a fun, family-friendly event. “It’s an eccentric instrument,” he added. “One of the challenges is how to make it accessible.”

A critically acclaimed documentary film “Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey,” was released in 1994, prompting a renewed interest in the instrument. “Imagine one performing in our sacred space,” wrote Father Edward Erb to parishioners about the upcoming performance. For more information, call 570/253-2760.