Woo-OOO-ooo-ing the crowd: Theremin fans celebrate its 100th anniversary in Bushwick church

Instrument of the century: Thereminist Dorit Chrysler will perform as part of a celebration of the electromagnetic instrument’s 100th anniversary in Bushwick on Feb. 8.
Photo by Kayssa Mavrides

They’re making waves!

A concert celebrating the 100th anniversary of the eerie electronic hand-wave-powered instrument known as the theremin will take over a Bushwick church next week. “100 Years of Theremin” will showcase the past, present, and future of the instrument at Bushwick Methodist Church on Feb. 8. One performer hopes the concert will show that the instrument is more than a quirky sound effect in mid-century sci-fi movies.

“There are so many people in all corners of the world trying to see what you can do with the theremin,” said Dorit Chrysler, who organized the event with the New York Theremin Society.

The concert is also an album release party for “Theremin 100,” a compilation of work by 50 theremin artists from 18 countries, using the 100-year-old instrument to play jazz, pop, classical, and ambient music.

The theremin, created by Russian inventor Léon Theremin in the 1920s, consists of a box with two antennas creating an electromagnetic field that players can manipulate for pitch and volume by waving their hands near the device, without actually touching it. It is a visceral experience to play, according to Chrysler.

“The interface is completely mesmerizing because you don’t touch anything,” she said. “In a way, you are the instrument. It’s your hand motions, and the theremin just provides the electromagnetic field.”

Those hand motions are hard to learn, and theremins are expensive, so it never became a widespread instrument. During the mid-20th century, some filmmakers adopted it as an uncanny sound effect tool, most famously the British television series “Dr Who.” The theremin also laid the groundwork for electronic music to come, such as the more popular synthesizer, which soon became the dominant electronic instrument.

The concert will feature a tribute to electronic music pioneer Clara Rockmore, who played classical songs on the theremin, original compositions from the New York Theremin Society’s orchestra, and covers of ambient music trailblazer Brian Eno and German techno group Kraftwerk, along with a discussion of the theremin’s role in the development of the Moog synthesizer, from that instrument’s co-creator, Herb Deutsch.

The music will be accompanied by light projections on the walls of the church, like all shows in the Ambient Church events series, which hosts immersive New Agey concerts in houses of worship across the borough.

Chrysler hopes that the event and the album will inspire a new generation of thereminists to take up the instrument.

“We’re laying the groundwork of what might be possible for exploring new applications of the instrument,” she said.

“100 Years of Theremin” at Brooklyn Methodist Church (1139 Bushwick Ave. at Madison Street in Bushwick, www.ambient.church). Feb. 8 at 7 pm. $40.

“Theremin 100,” on vinyl, CD, or digital. nythereminsociety.bandcamp.com. $25.