UCSD grad student debuts composition for theremin

The San Diego Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Jung-Ho Pak, will perform an original composition for the theremin by former UCSD graduate Linda Kernohan during its "Surprise! Surprise!" concert on March 10 at 7:30 p.m. at Sherwood Auditorium.

"Concerto for Theremin and Chamber Orchestra" will be performed by oboist Scott Paulson, who recommended Kernohan for the commission.

Several months ago, Pak asked his orchestra musicians what other instruments they played. Paulson happened to mention his experimentation with theremins, and it inspired Pak to create the "Surprise! Surprise!" performance.

While there are several standard pieces associated with the theremin, Paulson wanted something original. He told Pak: "If we're going to do this, let's do something brand new."

The last piece commissioned by Pak was written exclusively by men, so Paulson said, "This time you need some girl power."

He invited Kernohan to compose a piece for the concert, confident she could meet the demands of a limited rehearsal schedule and the specific instruments in the chamber orchestra.

"Here's why I knew she'd be good: She has a church musician's background ... so she understands things like page turns and cue notes," Paulson said. "A real practical composer like Linda knows to do that."

Although many people may not know what a theremin is, they are undoubtedly familiar with its signature sound - a sort of eerie, radio frequency whine. Used for television and film sound tracks, the theremin typically heralded the landing of aliens or signaled a vampire on the prowl.

"I knew that the theremin had a certain history associated with it," Kernohan said. "I wanted to pay homage to that tradition, but I also wanted to show that the theremin is a serious concert instrument than can sound beautiful."

Invented in 1918 by Leon Theremin, it is one of the first electronic instruments. A vertical antenna controls pitch, while a horseshoe-shaped horizontal antenna controls volume. The musician uses his hands – without touching the instrument – to manipulate notes and effect.

"It's like a slide whistle but worse," said Paulson.

Paulson, who works as outreach coordinator for UCSD Arts Library, collects and plays a number of unusual instruments, such as miniature pianos and the tambora.

"I was always jealous of all the toys the percussion section had," he said.

A musician with the Teeny-Tiny Pit Orchestra, an ensemble that performs for silent movies and radio dramas, Paulson also plays the chimes at the top of the UCSD Geisel Library.

Paulson began teaching himself to play the theremin in 1999 by watching video footage of Clara Rockmore, one of the most accomplished theremin players.

He calls the technique "aerial fingering." Different hand gestures, such as "the clam" or "chicken pecking," produce portamento, glissando, tremolo and vibrato sounds.

The challenge in playing a theremin comes not only from the lack of precise hand positioning, but also because the instrument is easily influenced by interference, even something as subtle as a deep breath drawn by the performer.

"Fortunately, Linda's piece celebrates the shortcomings of the instrument, the cliches of the instrument," Paulson said.

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