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Physical contact not needed to play Neidlinger's theramin
Philip Neidlinger watches as Anna Bragg tries to play a theremin at New Ebenezer on Saturday. Invented in 1919, the theremin was the first electronic musical device. The instrument has no strings or frets. A performer plays it by maneuvering his or her hands near a pair of antennas. - photo by Mark Lastinger/staff
It’s an instrument that’s easy to learn to play. Well, it’s an instrument that’s easy to learn to play badly.
Philip Neidlinger
Philip Neidlinger points to the inner workings of the theremin he built 16 years ago. It contains nearly a third of a mile of copper wire. - photo by Mark Lastinger/staff

RINCON — It looked like Philip Neidlinger was playing an invisible instrument or directing an unseen orchestra. As he gently flicked his hands to and fro, an eerie sound that would have been a perfect soundtrack for an old science-fiction movie emanated from a nearby amplifier.

Neidlinger, a ninth generation Salzburger descendant, was playing a theremin, an electronic musical device controlled without physical contact. He allowed many others to give it a try Saturday during Christkindlesmarkt at New Ebenezer.

“My wife named it Gabriella,” Neidlinger said. “It’s a lady who sings to heal the soul of tortured man.’ That’s from some opera.”

Neidlinger, an electrial engineer, constructed his unique instrument that sounds somewhat like a cello 16 years ago. It took him 18 months.

Housed in a wooden cabinet, his theremin features vaccuum tubes and nearly one-third of a mile of copper wire. It resembles a 1920s RCA version in appearance but differs significantly electronically.

Neidlinger’s theremin is based on the design of friend and mentor Mark Keppinger. Only a dozen or so like it are known to exist.

Two antennas protrude from the cabinet. The vertical one controls pitch and the horizontal one controls volume.

As a hand approaches the vertical antenna, interrupting a low-level magnetic field, the pitch gets higher. The volume lessens when a hand nears the horizontal antenna.

Russian physicist Lev  Termen invented the theremin in 1919. It is the only instrument that is played without the performer ever touching it.

“When this thing was invented, people flipped out,” Neidlinger said. “Nobody had ever seen anything like it.”

Theremins remained mostly a curiousity for about a decade until RCA started producing them in 1929. They cost $175, excluding the tubes and amplifers. 

The addition of those items bumped the total to $232, which is more than $3,200 in today’s currency.

“Mine isn’t for sale,” Neidlinger said. “My wife would kill me.”

Judging from the reaction of Christkindlesmarkt visitors who gave it a whirl, a theremin can’t be played without smiling. All sported a toothy grin while creating unearthly sounds with their gyrations.

“Most people want to move their hands up and down but you really need to move them back and forth,” Neidlinger said. “Since there are no strings or frets, playing a song depends solely on muscle memory.”

One of the theremin’s original students was Russian-born prodigy Clara Rockmore, who was an accomplished violinist by the age of 5. Rockmore turned to the theremin after developing a problem with her hands. She used “aerial fingering” to play it at an unprecedented level.

The upper interior shelf of Neidlinger’s theremin is autographed by a more recent virtuosa, Lydia Kavina, the grand niece of Termen. She signed it at Etherfest, held in Asheville, N.C., in 2008

“She is considered by many to be the premier living theremist on the planet,” Neidlinger said.

Neidlinger plays the theremin quite well but not as good as he would like.

“It’s an easy instrument to play,” he said. “Well, it’s an easy instrument to play badly.”