Amidst the growl of coffee grinding, the high-pitched whisper of milk steaming, and a soothing, yet defined beat courtesy of a live percussionist, Jason Smeltzer talked to the Independent Gazette at Duffy’s Coffee House in Clarks Summit. He shared with us how he became a thereminist.
Ten years ago, Smeltzer saw a theremin for sale. He said that he bought it as a joke. “I did some homework. Not much has been done, not much competition, so it kind of made sense at the time to disappear. I disappeared for three years and just practiced that ridiculous thing.”
The theremin is an early electronic instrument, invented in 1919 by Russian physicist Lev Thermen. Russian government-sponsored research on proximity sensors and radio frequency begat the hands-free instrument, which uses those sensors along with electromagnetic fields to create tone. The original theremins were intended for classical music and were as large as lecture podiums. As instruments became smaller and easier to play, the untouchable theremin started to fall out of favor, and is now used sparingly or as a novelty.
Smeltzer was an only child who spent the most of his youth on a hilltop farm in Harford, Pennsylvania. “I had moved every year, so I was used to not really belonging anywhere, I guess you would say.
“With mother being from Chicago, we started there, and just settling in, and eventually they didn’t like the traffic there, so we moved to the Pittsburgh area and eventually got a job in Scranton. My father was an engineer. So, he got the job here, bought the farm, and that was it.”
He said boredom led him to visual art, which then carried him to music. Most of his knowledge came from his beloved music encyclopedias. He started with what he deemed “all the normal stuff: guitar, piano, voice . . . just tinkering. A little bit of woodwind in there, a little bit of violin in there.” Feeling unprepared for college, but encouraged by his parents, Smeltzer armed himself with all the musical academics he could retain. After immersion in theory fundamentals, Smeltzer attended Marywood (whether Marywood College or Marywood University is his secret) and dabbled in painting, English, and music.
Smeltzer said he taught himself the theremin because “there are not many options. But it is wise to have a strong background in music prior to pursuing the theremin. Clara Rockmore said so also: ‘Theremin is not your first instrument.’ ” Rockmore, born in 1911, was a well-known theremin virtuoso. She died in 1998.
A full decade after learning the theremin — and now a self-proclaimed “roving instrumentalist” — Smeltzer said that though the theremin is not his favorite instrument, he enjoys its uniqueness and simplicity. With Gazette staff in attendance, Smeltzer set up his equipment for an informal performance in the coffee shop with his friend and fellow musician, Jeff Brozena, playing the tabla, a North Indian drum. When asked how the theremin works, Smeltzer replied, “You have to be very smart.” Smeltzer further explained by comparing the theremin to a burglar alarm. “Essentially anything with mass that gets near it excites it. Whatever is closest wins.”
Smeltzer gave a demonstration by putting his finger on the metal loop. The theremin remained silent. “Essentially, by you standing there, you’re helping.” Smeltzer removed his finger. A quiet squeal emanated from the speakers. “That’s you. Now go ahead and move your hand.” A peal of electronica pierced the air.
Smeltzer said the theremin is held in high regard by “science geeks.” He mentioned the friendly emails he gets every time the episode of The Big Bang Theory airs in which Sheldon plays the electric device. The theremin can be heard in songs such as “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zepplin, “Guitar” by Cake, “Hello from Inside a Shell” by of Montreal, and “Echoes” by Pink Floyd. Theremin-like sounds are used in the chorus of “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys, but by a related instrument, not a pure theremin. The eerie melody of the theremin has also been used in various movies, from The Machinist to King of California, from The Day the Earth Stood Still, to It Came from Outer Space.
When asked if he has a plan for his future, Smeltzer said, “I do not, actually. One thing has always led to two others.”
Smeltzer said he has not given lessons thus far, but he does offer group demonstrations. He can be contacted at theannotatedsmeltzer @ yahoo . com or via Facebook. His performance this past May with percussionist Jeff Brozena may be viewed here
Or, as you sip a soy latte one random evening in a café, you may hear the mournful zip of a theremin. “Your preferred thereminist,” as Smeltzer signs his emails, may just be there.