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Electronics, theremin and unusual music

By JUDITH LINDER-ASHAKIH • Nov 6, 2018 at 5:00 PM

MILAN — Robert Wheeler walked around the dining room table and pointed out a wooden rectangular box with a series of knobs on the front.

It had a piece of plumbing tube shaped like an upside down letter “U” that protruded from the right side of the box. On the left side was another “U-tube.” That pun made Wheeler laugh as he demonstrated the system.

A special box with several knobs is attached to this instrument, called a theremin, built by an electronics specialist in London.

A theremin is an electronic musical instrument that is played without being touched. The musician controls the pitch and volume by the way they move and wave their hands near the antennas.

Despite being an electronic instrument, the unusual music makers have been around for nearly a hundred years. Its tone is generated by two high frequency oscillators. The pitch is controlled by the movement of the performer's hands toward and away from the circuit.

Originally called an etherphon, the instrument is named after its inventor, Leon Theremin.

“It’s a prototype given to The Edge, of the band U2, but he didn’t want it because it made his guitar sound too metallic,” Wheeler said. “It was given to me by a friend from the Electronic Music Foundation.”

He plugged in the cords and began waving his hands. Waves of ethereal sound rose and fell to his gestures.

Wheeler, the great, great grand nephew of Tomas Edison paraphrased Frank Zappa, saying "progress only happens when there is deviation from the norm.” The Milan man has had a long career creating, experimenting and promoting electronic voice possibilities, bringing just this kind of change.

Wheeler already had two years of electronics courses at Cleveland's Electronics Technology Institute by the time he built a theremin. He originally heard about them from his father, who saw a demonstration in Arizona.

“It had also been demonstrated on the Mickey Mouse Club,” Wheeler said.

Perhaps the most current use of theremin music is that created for “First Man,” a film currently in theaters which tells the story of Neil Armstrong’s first journey in space.

“It’s been used all over the world as sound effects for movies,” Wheeler said.

You may have heard it in two 1945 movie sound tracks: “The Lost Weekend” and “Spellbound.” It’s music and effects can also be found in “The Thing from Another World” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” both produced in 1951, and “Forbidden Planet” in 1956. Wheeler listed these sources and said the theremin can be recognized by its otherworldly sound. 

How did these strange sounds of the etherphon come to inspire and resonate with Wheeler?

A circuitous route made him aware of it. He said his interest was piqued because of the possibilities it presented for him to be able to build his own unique sounds. Now Wheeler is able to play it so well that his talent has helped his rock band, Pere Ubu, to gain a worldwide following. 

By the age of 3, Wheeler was introduced to Japanese Kabuki music through a record his mother bought him. The atonal sounds paired with unusual drummings, very unlike western music tunes, stayed in his memory.

When he accidentally came across the music of rock band 'Pere Ubu' twenty years later he was able to appreciate and recognize similarities to which he said he felt a deep affinity.

"Dad's friend said I should have a trade," Wheeler said. "The reason I went into electronics was because of one of the Pere Ubu groups. I first saw it on (Nov. 11, 1976) at the Pirate Cove in Cleveland.

"My friend Allen, told me to go to PI Corporation, talk to David Yost. He said, 'I took electronics.' I knew he (Yost) had built things for Tangerine Dream. This meeting changed my life. All of a sudden I'm looking in a different direction — there's a whole other world."

Using a pattern, Wheeler built a theremin as his final project in electronic school. He received a B.

"It's not a musical instrument," he said his teacher told him.

"I made it without ever seeing one, just the diagram of how to make it,” Wheeler said. “It took a long time to learn how to tune and get music from it.”

He used this "B" grade theremin "playing it all over Europe and New Zealand before it broke," he said with a laugh. He said he’s wondered what his old teacher would have to say about that.

By the late 70s Pere Ubu was already an international band, "fifteen years or more playing abroad before I was asked to join,” Wheeler said of 1994 debut with the band.

Besides connecting for shows abroad with Pere Ubu members, Wheeler had a band of his own. Influenced by that Pere Ubu, Savage Tractors was based out of Milan township in the late 70s and early 80s. Wheeler said he used his original Theremin, but mostly played an analog synthesizer.

Next came 'Home and Garden,' an offshoot of Pere Ubu, who still perform in Cleveland, he said.

"I've been with them since the early 80s," Wheeler added.

Albums and CDs of Pere Ubu are well known to underground music aficionados, he said. On July 25, 2018, a reissue of their 1985 album 'Terminal Tower' came out. Their newest record on vinyl came out Sept. 29, 2017, named '20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo.' All of the albums can be found on the Pere Ubu website.

"There are over twenty albums and CDs," Wheeler said, "and they're all great."

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