Rock 'n' roll magic
James "Largebeat" Gertz plays the Theremin, the instrument heard in the soundtrack to various science-fiction movies of the 1950s (most famously The Day the Earth Stood Still) and imitated by a vocalist in the theme to the original Star Trek series. Invented in the 1920s by Russian scientist Lev Termen, known in the West as Leon Theremin, the instrument was among the first to generate sound from electronic sources. The Theremin is unique in the musical world in that it is played without being touched--the player uses his or her hands to alter the electronic frequencies surrounding the instrument's dual antennae.
The Theremin has an interesting history, but its meanings in popular culture have been mostly connected to silly 1950s stories of alien contact and notions of a coming technological golden age. Some rock musicians have played it, but few have played it as a true rock 'n' roll instrument. Mr. Largebeat's show represents something you can see in Ann Arbor but not too many other places. His music has a garage rock energy, with a guitar-and-drum band that, except for a bit of synthesizer, wouldn't have been too far out of place in an Ann Arbor student house in 1970.
Which is not to say that Mr. Largebeat (who has an enthusiasm for UFOs on the side) doesn't make use of science-fiction imagery. The band's new Greetings from Out There album features tracks like "Stardrive 7" and "Orbit 14" in addition to the title track. But it balances them with ordinary rock 'n' roll themes like "Fishin' for Love." And the most unusual thing is that Mr. Largebeat doesn't play the Theremin with its usual eerie disembodied singing tone. Instead he makes use of the instrument's extreme pitch-bending abilities, and he gets down with distortion, strange attacks, and static. The effect suggests something like an alien landing on Planet Earth and enthusiastically jumping into a rock 'n' roll band.
Any Theremin player, seeming to practice magic by producing
sound simply with hands waved through the air, is coolest when seen and heard live. But Mr. Largebeat may be even more compellingly mysterious in this respect. When I saw him play last winter at Arbor Brewing, thanks to a friend who is among his devoted cadre of local fans, he delivered a barroom rock show, with the high volume you would expect in that setting. Rock music, at one level, works by removing a layer of analytical reaction and producing a heightened visceral and communal response (not to analyze this thing and take all the fun out of it). Put a Theremin on top of that, and instead of representing an artificial construct of technological advancement it will take you to a whole new plane.
Mr. Largebeat makes the Theremin rock at Liberty Plaza at noon on Saturday, August 22.
[Originally published in August, 2009.]