How do you play that which you cannot touch? While many might not know the theremin by name, chances are you’ll have seen Bill Bailey play one—or at least have heard it in television themes like Midsomer Murders. Its warbly, cosmic wails are certainly recognisable. Unique for being the only instrument you play without touching it (volume and pitch are controlled by the hands’ positions relative to the device’s antennae), the theremin is not only incredibly difficult to play but also, surprisingly, a pivotal chapter in the development of contemporary electronic music.
Ms Hypnotique, the UK posterwoman for this otherworldly contraption, sets out to both entertain and educate, interspersing this lighthearted historical seminar with live numbers and faux-Skype e-concerts with notable international thereminists. But as much as this one-woman show is an endearing, earnest production—and that huge skill is required to conduct what is effectively empty space to create music—the instrument is still, well, a bit weird.
It’s enchanting, and unusual, and—played well—can be utterly transportive. But Hypnotique is not world class, and when you can’t hit precise notes because there’s nothing to touch, that often off-key spacey yowling can only entertain so long. The e-concert segments are great, and Hypnotique herself is effusive and knowledgeable when unravelling the myths and origins of the theremin; there’s just something inherently kitsch and awkward about both the instrument and the show she’s constructed around it.
If you know absolutely nothing about the theremin, Etherwave is a much more engaging way to learn about its invention than looking it up online – and you get to hear it played live to boot. But as a fun 60 minutes, it falls desperately short.