International Theremin Orchestra: Touchless

“The termen-vox (theremin), the precursor of the synthesizer, built in 1919 by the Russian inventor Lev Sergejewitsch Termen (Theremin), is the worlds first commercially produced electronic musical instrument. The instrument is played with the two hands by moving them in front of two separate antennas. As usual you control pitch and volume determined by the distance between the hands and the antennas. The termen-vox generates a sound similar to a female voice.”

4 December 1997 saw the first performance of the International Theremin Orchestra performing the networked piece, Touchless 01. It was performed for “Recylcing the Future“, RadioKulturhaus, Vienna.

Touchless 01 (L-R: Garton, C. Kurzmann, S Messina, Scanner)

On the 4th and 6th of April 1998, the International Theremin Orchestra met to perform in Austria, Touchless 2, at the Kunst Halle Krems, Minoritenkirche and the Ars Electronica Center, Linz. These performances resulted in the CD release, Touchless, now available from various online stores and retailers.

Touchless CD cover


Touchless 01 [RealAudio]

Photos from the first performance of Touchless.

Technical details and performers:

Touchless 01
Touchless 02

Purchase Touchless from CDemusic, a service of the Electronic Music Foundation.


For Touchless, “non-singer” Elizabeth Schimana assembled an International Theremin Orchestra – musicians exploring the musical possibilities of various theremins and theremin-triggered electronic devices – to support her vocal improvisations. The first three tracks were recorded during an Internet and radio simulcast, with the musicians wired in from such scattered zones as Madrid, Moscow, and Vienna.

Purposely sounding more like a beached beluga than a songbird, Schimana warbles in timbres that mimic, complement, and melt naturally with the trebly tones of the ensemble’s varicolored electrical hum. Contributors such as Christoph Kurzmann (Orchester 33/13), Robin Rimbaud, and Pedro López subject their oscillations to sampler and processing mutations, adding texture and a smattering of digital crunch.

Among the Russian delegates, Yuri Spitsin plays his theremin with a powerglove, Andre Smirnov’s passes through a ring modulator, and jazz-educated singer Lana Aksenova, a student at The Theremin Center in Moscow, also joins Schimana in the free-voice arena. With an Italian (Sergio Messina, on a commercial-model fuzz thereminette), an Australian (multimedia composer Andrew Garton), and numerous Austrians also contributing to the event, one might expect a melee of tangled frequencies and scrambled tones. But the concert is rather sedate, often sounding like a small gathering of finches atop a rusty garden gate or tree frogs sharing a mid-afternoon kaffeklatsch.

Schimana’s second concert, an hour-long performance of “virtual vowels,” was set in an Austrian church where the eight musicians shared four strategically situated workstations. Using the acoustics of the cathedral as an oral cavity and the theremin players as vocal chords, the tracks presented here simulate the apparatus of speech.

Schimana and her Orchestra carve out resonant grottos of sound, defined by the familiar pitch-sweeps and tremulous sighs of the massed theremins. With an understanding of the theremin’s unique mechanics, these extraordinary performances live up to the album’s subtitle. The sound hovers, throbbing and vibrating like a fleshy apparition, even though no actual contact can be made as the musicians’ hands move between the instruments’ antennae. “E” even manifests a quavering, lustful pulse, lending an orgasmic tension that builds relentlessly as the music twitches wildly.

If you think about it, these tracks are like a good Victorian romance. The atmosphere of carnal electricity is all the more maddening and inebriating for the aching restraint that must be shown, to the point where the charge of sexual tension is carried by even the thought of the slightest gesture within the theremin’s excitable electric field.

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