Playing the body electric

James Coleman brings his Theremin to the Piano Factory
By SUSANNA BOLLE  |  July 2, 2008

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Leon Theremin and the instrument that bares his name
Chances are, even if you’ve never seen one played, you know what a theremin sounds like. It’s the goblinesque instrument that creates the excitational siren song of the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and the eerie, alien howl of a hundred hoky sci-fi and horror films. If you’re a real sophisticate, you know it’s responsible for the quavering vibrato of Clara Rockmore’s virtuosic interpretations of light classics.

But when local improviser JAMES COLEMAN plays the theremin, it sounds altogether different. In place of the instrument’s trademark æthereal hum, Coleman favors small, subtle gestures akin to those of a calligrapher. It’s quiet, economical, and often surprisingly austere. The gestural component of playing the theremin, which the musician controls without ever touching the instrument, is something that Coleman finds compelling. “Music is increasingly digital and disembodied in the Internet age. Being a thereminist means being able to use your body to make electronic sounds, and we don’t often associate electronic sounds with the body. Electronic music, culturally, can sometimes afford us to avoid embodied personality in a human activity. Bodies are creepy. Bodies are real.”

This Tuesday, Coleman will perform a duo set with LOU COHEN on laptop at the Piano Factory. Cohen was a composition student of John Cage, and he’s a long-time champion of new music here in Boston. Coleman is excited about their ongoing collaboration, explaining that Cohen’s Cagean take on improv combined with “his desire to create unusual tapestries of harmonies and melodies was an opportunity too attractive to resist.”

JAMES COLEMAN & LOU COHEN + THE HUMAN HAIRS + MAX LORD | Piano Craft Guild, 791 Tremont St, Boston | July 8 | www.semataproductions.com

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