Art

Adorable Mid-Century-Inspired Theremins You Can Play

Odd Harmonics
Theremins in “Odd Harmonics” at Judith Charles Gallery (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

A crowd of whimsical theremins is currently residing in a Bowery gallery, ready to play out their eerie music from mid-century-inspired handmade forms.

Odd Harmonics
An owl-like theremin

Called Odd Harmonics, the exhibition opened this week at Judith Charles Gallery, launching into a month-long series of performances that will be taking place in the space involving the charming instruments. Designed by François Chambard of UM Project, the dozen theremins are joined by collage by Cassandra C. Jones and paintings by Tomory Dodge. Yet while the two-dimensional art adds splashes of appropriately rambling colors to the gallery walls, it’s really the theremins that are center stage.

At opening night, visitors seemed a little timid to try out Chambard’s theremins, possibly not knowing quite how to approach the instruments built from wood and metal, and even fabric, felt patterns, and fake fur mixed with odd items like funnels or wire brushes. Yet even in its standard form — basically a long box with an antenna towering up at one end — a theremin can look like an alien object. And it sounds extraterrestrial, too, which is why it’s been popular in things like the spacey theme in the 1951 film The Day The Earth Stood Still, or as winding eerie noise mixed into rock songs like the Pixies’ “Velouria.” The instrument was invented by Léon Theremin in the 1920s as one of the first electronic instruments (here’s a video of him playing the instrument himself), and unlike just about every other instrument, it’s not played by touch, but by moving your hand near an antenna to alter the pitch and volume. One of the instruments Theremin designed in the 1930s is also visiting the gallery alongside its contemporary cousins.

Odd Harmonics
Theremins with art by Cassandra C. Jones

Yet even if all that theremin history is old hat to you, Chambard’s theremins in Odd Harmonics, with names like “Cosmic Volume” and “Yello Halo,” have their own unique Irving Harper-like charm to them with their bright colors and mid-century craft design style. The exhibition is a collaboration between Moog Music, whose Moog Etherwave Theremin is lodged in each of the sculptural instruments, and Butterscotch Records. The whole event is serving as something of a launch for the label, with a month of theremin-centric performances that seem appropriately analogue for a label that’s all about the vinyl. It includes performances from Wilco keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, New Weather, Graph Rabbit, theremin master Carolina Eyck, and performance artist Christen Clifford. Or you can stop by anytime during Odd Harmonics and try making some UFO noises yourself.

Odd Harmonics
Artist Tomory Dodge trying out a theremin next to his painting “A Slight Disappearance”
Odd Harmonics
Gallery view of “Odd Harmonics”
Odd Harmonics
One of the François Chambard-designed theremins
Odd Harmonics
Another theremin designed by François Chambard
Odd Harmonics
Gallery view of “Odd Harmonics”

Odd Harmonics is at Judith Charles Gallery (196 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through November 16.  

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