Savannah Theremin Summit

On a recent visit to Savannah, Georgia, my wife and I visited the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum, which holds a fine collection of ship models, many of them named Savannah, like this one, which was the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

ships of the sea maritime museumIf you love ship models, it’s worth a visit.

But even better than the museum was a serendipitous bonus. While there, we saw an ad for the Savannah Theremin Summit, which was occurring on the museum grounds that very evening at 7:00!

And since we had dinner reservations for 8:45, I said, “Let’s go!”

So we returned just before 7:00, paid $5 each, and were lucky to get a seat in the front row. Theremins aren’t that popular in Savannah—or anywhere.

In fact, most people don’t know what a theremin is.

So: Invented by the Russian Leon Themerin, who patented the device in 1928, the theremin is the only musical instrument that is played without touching it. It’s composed of two metal antennas—one horizontal and one vertical—that sense the position of the musician’s hands, and thus control oscillators for frequency and amplitude.

If you think of the Beach Boys hit, Good Vibrations, you’ll recall the eerie electronic noises of a theremin (though that device was actually a Tannerin).

Most theremins these days are built by Moog, the company that became famous for early synthesizer music. Prices range from $319 to $519. But one of the thereminists at Savannah, Philip Neidlinger, built his own, using vacuum tubes! And he played it superbly.

Here’s my video of Philip playing America the Beautiful.

After Philip came Ricardo Ochoa, who played a theremin while Richard Leo Johnson played a custom-made acoustic Martin guitar fitted with an integral theremin—all in an alien design. This one-of-a-kind guitar was on loan from Martin’s museum.

Here’s Richard with the alien hybrid.

richard leo johnson with martian guitarAnd here’s a video of the two musicians.

The last player was Melissa Hagerty, a singer who used her theremin mainly as accompaniment for other recorded pieces. She was at the far end of the stage and I didn’t get any good video.

The musicians played individually, in round robin style, several times, sometimes accompanied by mother nature’s thunder and lightning and rain (though we were outdoors, we were under a roof).

And they promised that after intermission, they would attempt to play together—not an easy feat. For the record, these four musicians comprise the entire theremin-playing community of Savannah.

But we were out of time, so we left for our dinner reservation, where we had a fine time discussing one of the oddest musical performances we’d ever seen.