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September 17, 1998
The Lothars revive the spooky sounds of the theremin
By DOROTHY POMERANTZ
Photo caption: Dean Stiglitz uses his theremin to trigger sound effects through a computer.
Photo credit: CNC STAFF PHOTO
One of the most original bands in the Boston area is hiding out on a quiet, residential Somerville street. On the second floor of a two-family house on Charnwood Road, the Lothars are making music without even touching their instruments.
That's because the Lothars play theremins, four of them to be exact, plus a guitar or violin. The band is the only theremin orchestra in the Boston area and one of the only theremin bands in the country.
"When I first heard about the theremin, I thought it sounded really cool to play an instrument that you don't touch," said Kris Thompson, one of the founding members of the band. "It's kind of sci-fi and out of the ordinary."
Although most people have probably never heard of a theremin, they have probably heard the unique sound the instrument produces, which is something like a melodic air-raid siren. The theremin has been used in dozens of movies when creepy, other-worldly music was called for.
In "The Day the Earth Stood Still," it was a theremin heard in the background when the robot alien raised his eye visor and when the scene shifted to inside the space ship.
The theremin has also made appearances in several pop songs. On the Beach Boys record "Good Vibrations," the psychedelic sound of the theremin elevated the otherwise pop beach song to the level of musical classic.
But the Lothars don't use their theremins as Brian Wilson did, to add atmosphere in the background. For this band, the theremins are what it's all about.
"When we decided to have a theremin orchestra and we started looking around for theremin players, we didn't have much luck," said Jon Bernhardt.
When the Thompson and Bernhardt started the Lothars in 1996, they were novice players themselves. Bernhardt had been inspired to play the theremin by a documentary titled "Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey." The film tells the story of Russian inventor Leon Theremin, who created the instrument using old-fashioned vacuum tubes in 1924.
The original theremin, which was the first electronic instrument, resembled a lectern with two antennas, one horizontal loop at the side and one vertical antenna at the opposite end. Newer models have smaller boxes, but the antennas are still the same.
The sound is produced by a magnetic field that forms around the two antennas. By raising and lowering one hand over the looped antenna, the player controls the volume, and by moving the other hand closer or further from the vertical antenna, the player controls the pitch.
"Basically, if you've ever stood near a radio on an AM station and noticed that you interfere with the sound depending on where you stand, you know basically how a theremin works," said Bernhardt, an MIT graduate who added that he was not clear on the exact mechanisms at work within the instrument.
The Lothars took their name from a '60s theremin group called Lothar and the Hand People. Lothar was the name of the theremin in the band.
When the Lothars first started out, the players were still getting used to playing the novel instruments. Since there are no notes to hit or strings to pluck, the player must learn how to hit a note based on his exact hand position in the air near the instrument. Because of the difficulty in getting precise notes, the Lothars started out just winging it.
"We've always just sort of played to our ability," said Bernhardt.
Their first gig was in a loft in Chinatown, where they were the house band playing between other acts at a music festival.
"It was kind of a mess," said Bernhardt. "We were stuck in the corner; we couldn't hear each other and the whole thing was just too loud. But then we had gotten our first gig out of the way."
Since then, the band has played in public about every other month. During performances, the Lothars usually combine aspects of composed songs with some serious improvisation.
"When we work on songs, we listen to the noise and just adjust what we're doing," said Laurie Ramona Herboldsheimer, who originally joined the band as a drummer and now plays guitar and violin. "Sometimes, everyone will be hitting a chord and it will be really beautiful. Then someone will alter their note and the whole song will change."
"If we hear someone getting busy, the rest of will lay back," added Thompson. "It's not like a jazz show where each musician solos."
Even though she plays guitar, Herboldsheimer keeps the beat for a lot of the music. Bernhardt plays steady riffs on his theremin, Thompson adds little flourishes such as a neighing horse sound in the song "Cowboy's Lament," and the other two band members, Dean Stiglitz and Jon Hindmarsh, play melodies.
The Lothars are just about to release their first CD called "Meet the Lothars." Although the band members all agree that the spooky sound of the theremin will probably never replace the guitar as the pop instrument, they're having a good time bringing their unique music to the world.
"The theremin is catching on," said Bernhardt. "Although in the grand scheme of things it seems like there aren't that many theremin players, in the world of musicians, it seems like they're coming out of the woodwork."