Strange sounds will soon float through the air at The Henry Ford. Ghostly, warbling, hypnotic sounds. Reverberations that might be described as pure science fiction—as seeming “out-of-this-world.” These provocative sounds will rise out of an instrument called the theremin, developed in 1920 by Russian and Soviet inventor Léon Theremin. Famously, it is one of the only instruments that is played without physically touching it, and is considered to be the world’s first practical, mass-produced, and portable electronic instrument. These instruments offer a deep range of sonic possibility; learning to play one is a stirring experience.
At Maker Faire Detroit, July 30-31, 2016, Dorit Chrysler will provide several theremin workshops with KidCoolThereminSchool, a workshop program “dedicated to inspire and nurture creative learning and expression through innovative music education, art and science.” On Saturday, youth workshops (ages 4-13) will be held on a first come-first served basis at 11am and 1pm, followed by an adult workshop (ages 14 and above) at 4pm. On Sunday, youth workshops will be held at 1pm, followed by an adult workshop at 4pm. Maker Faire attendees are encouraged to arrive early to guarantee a place in the workshop, as each session is limited to ten participants. Additional guests are welcome to observe the workshop and test a theremin afterwards. Workshops typically run 45mins to 1hour, and will be held in the upper mezzanine area in the Heroes of the Sky exhibit.
Dorit Chrysler is rarity in the realm of musical performance: she is one of the few theremin players in the world who is considered to be a virtuoso of the instrument. She has accompanied an impressive list of bands including The Strokes, and Blonde Redhead, Swans, Cluster, ADULT., Dinosaur Jr., and Mercury Rev. Additionally, as part of her visit to Maker Faire, Dorit will give a performance each day at 3:15pm in The Henry Ford’s Drive-In Theatre, followed by a short Q&A session.
Kristen Gallerneaux, our Curator of Communications and Information Technology, had the opportunity to speak with Dorit Chysler about theremins, her music career, and the importance of collaboration.
Can you explain, using a few key words or phrases—as fanciful as you want them to be—how the theremin sounds?
The granddaughter of the Lev Termen, the theremin's inventor once told me, you have to play the theremin with your soul - to me the sound at its best translates your slightest physical motions into a haunting & delicate soundscape, like weaving winds, tickled butterflies or howls to the moon, and yes, a theremin can sound exquisitely lyrical, but—at its worst, it can also sound like stepping on a cats tail.
How did your introduction to and love of the theremin as an instrument begin? What was your creative background before committing to the theremin?
Having studied musicology in Vienna, I had been an active composer and also played guitar and sang in a rock band - when encountering the theremin at a friend’s house, I was instantly touched by its unusual interface, dynamic potential, the quixotic efforts necessary in controlling its pitch -why had the theremin not been more popular? It clearly deserved more attention.
How can the presence of a theremin influence the structure of a song?
A theremin is surprisingly versatile - it can be applied in solo voicing (just like violin or guitar) or looping monophonic voices atop of each other, which creates a very unique weaving effect or dynamically in swoops and other gestural movements generated through its unique interface of motion translating into sound.
Are there any “quirks” to playing this instrument live?
Playing a theremin live can be a challenge, as circuitry, wind (outdoors) or Hearing Aid ‘Loop’ T-coil Technology in concert halls, just to name a few, can interfere with the instrument. In addition, if you don't hear yourself well onstage, it is impossible to play in tune—so if playing with other instruments, such as an orchestra or a band with drummers, it is a challenge that can only be mastered with your own mixer and an in ear mic. Needless to say, all of this does not contribute in making the theremin a more popular instrument, the technical challenge playing live is real but can be mastered.
While commercial theremins are available via Moog Music, Inc., the theremin you sometimes play in your live shows doesn’t look like a commercial model. Is there a story behind who built it? Any special skills that creator may have had to work hard to learn in order to make the instrument a reality?
I own several different theremin models and sometimes play a Hobbs Theremin, created by Charlie Hobbs. This prototypes has hand-wound coils and a very responsive volume antenna which permits very dynamic playing.
What is the strangest setting in which you have played the theremin?
Many diverse settings seem to offer themselves to a thereminist. Some of my favorite ones have been: playing in front of Nikola Tesla's ashes, resting inside a gold ball sitting on a red velvet pillow at the Tesla Museum in Belgrade, or inside an ancient stone castle ruin, atop a mountain in Sweden, or on a wobbly boat off Venice during sunset and with creaming ducks, at the Carnival in Brazil on a busy street filled with dancing people, and finally, a market place in a small town in Serbia, when an orthodox priest held his cross against the theremin to protect his people from "the work of the devil."
Could you talk a little about the importance of collaboration, and perhaps talk about a project that you are especially fond of where collaboration had a key role?
I strongly believe in collaboration—its challenges and the new and unforeseen places it may take you. My biggest challenge this year has been playing with the San Francisco Symphony orchestra, to be surrounded by a sea of acoustic instruments sounded incredible and was a great sonic inspiration. We all had to trust each other and some of the traditional classical musicians of the ensemble eyed the electric theremin with great suspicion! Also I enjoyed playing with Cluster, stone cold improvising together onstage, or with a loud rock ensemble, filling the main stage at Roskilde festival with Trentemoeller, looking at a sea of thousands of people. This Fall I am committed to projects in collaboration with a project in Detroit with the band ADULT., a French band called Infecticide (they remind me of a political French version of Devo), a children’s theremin orchestra, and a theremin musical production for Broadway. Stylistically a theremin can fit in nowhere or anywhere, which opens many doors of collaboration
Can you tell us a little bit about how KidCoolTheremin school began? What other sorts of venues have you travelled this program to?
KidCoolThereminSchool began very organically, when children and adults were so eager to try the theremin themselves after concerts. I developed a curriculum and started classes at Pioneerworks, a center for art and science in Red Hook, NY. We were supported by Moog Music in Asheville, NC, where I had been teaching students over the course of six months. KidCoolThereminSchool has been going global ever since, we have had sold out classes in Sweden, Switzerland, Detroit's MOCAD, Houston, NYC, Moogfest, Vienna, and Copenhagen. This fall, KidCoolThereminSchool will go to Paris and Berlin as well as free classes in Manhattan as part of the "Dame Electric" festival in NY, Sept. 13-18th.
Why is it important for young people and new adult audiences to have the chance to try a theremin?
Ever since its inception, the theremin as a musical instrument has been underestimated—it merely hasn’t found its true sound as of yet. In this age of technology, a theremin's unique interface of motion to sound, seems contemporary and accessible. Amidst a sea of information, the very physical and innovative approach to different playing techniques can allow each player to find their own voice of expression, learning to listen and experiment, to train motorics and musical skills in a playful and creative way.
What can people expect to learn at the KidCool workshops at Maker Faire?
Due to time restrictions, we will offer introductory classes on the theremin. We will go through the basics of sound generation—and ensemble playing is sometimes all it takes for someone to get inspired in wanting to dive further into the sonic world of the theremin.
Is there anything you are particularly excited to see at the museum?
Yes, the collection apparently holds two RCA theremins. They are currently not on display but we (the NY Theremin Society, which I cofounded) would very much like to help examine and determine what it would take to operate these instruments one day, and to even play them in concert at the museum in the future. For a long time now I wanted to see the permanent collection of The Henry Ford!
The Theremin, Model AR-1264, Made and Marketed by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) from 1929-1935.
theremins, Maker Faire Detroit
On April 16-17, 2016, the 4th USA Science & Engineering Festival was held in Washington, DC. This national event is the largest science festival in the country, with over 3000 exhibitors, a speaker program, and hundreds of hands-on activities for attendees to participate in. Free admission helps the festival to draw an annual attendance of over 350,000 visitors, which range from school groups and educators—to curious adults (and at least one tech-obsessed curator). Much like The Henry Ford’s own Maker Faire Detroit, the exhibits buzzed with possibility and discovery for all things technological and experimental. The enthusiasm in the exhibit halls was contagious among young and adult audiences alike, as mixture of independent startups, educational collectives, government organizations, and commercial investors collided under one roof, under one common goal: to engage young audiences by providing formative and positive interactions with the STEM fields—and to suggest the future possibilities of the weight of technology within our everyday lives. Here are a few favorite moments from the festival.
SketchUp, a computer program for 3D modeling, showed a multi-dimensional range of abilities with projects that fell into the entertainment-based arena (a DIY foosball table or mechanical dinosaur)—to more educational applications such as an interactive, light-up plan of Washington, DC. Thanks to SketchUp’s open source model, with access to a 3D printer, you could theoretically create your own model of the city of Detroit or even of The Henry Ford museum by using ready-made SketchUp plans, available for free online. As SketchUp’s demonstrators noted, once the models are printed and a simple LED-light structure is put into place, these models “can be great for learning about an existing area of the world, re-imagining one, or coming up with your own world altogether.”
The robotics company, Festo, was onsite to demonstrate examples of their beautiful and uncanny biomimetic designs. A tank full of their AquaJelly devices perfectly mimed the swarming behavior of real-world jellyfish. Similarly, the company has created autonomous “AirPenguins,” butterflies, and bionical ants that “collaborate” through machine-based learning processes. While the visual presence of swimming robotic jellyfish is hypnotic to be sure, the company’s goals go much deeper than pure flash and fodder. Festo’s mission is to improve modern manufacturing by recreating the patterns of collaboration, control, and innovation already found within the wonders and orders of nature.
The National Security Agency and National Cryptologic Museum were also present. A hands-on display allowed guests to press keys on a working Enigma machine, well-known for its role in WWII-era communication. Machines like this were famously used by the German military to encrypt messages, while the secretive work happening at Bletchley Park in England was working to crack the Enigma’s codes. Activities at the NSA’s booth introduced young audiences to the historical world of cryptology and codebreaking via cipher disks, but also demonstrated how the same concepts could be used in contemporary cybersecurity. The Agency not only showed youth how to create a strong password, but also provided “cybersmart” awareness training in the privacy and use of social media.
Several large pavilions encouraging careers in space science and education formed an undeniably strong presence at the festival. NASA, Lockheed-Martin, and a few others created welcoming zones jam-packed with hands-on activities. At the NASA exhibit
, younger audiences could rub shoulders with working NASA scientists, see models of Mars rovers, learn about modern-day space exploration, and a glimpse into the scientific principles behind it all. Lockheed-Martin’s pavilion was taken over with a speculative display of Mars-related technology—although, as the banners posted throughout the experience cleverly reminded visitors: “This Science Isn’t Fiction
.” As I stared, admittedly mystified, at the impressively fast and fluid industrial 3D printer in front of me (that seemed a bit like it had jumped straight out of a sci-fi movie about sentient technology), a Lockheed-Martin expert patiently explained the process unfolding before us. While the MRAC (Multi-Robotic Additive Cluster)
, was set up to print with plastic at the festival, this machine is primarily used to print flight-ready parts for satellites with titanium, aluminum, and Inconel
. It can produce rapid-fire prototypes, but also polished parts, cutting the time to, for example, create a satellite fuel tank from 18 months—down to 2 weeks. Lockheed-Martin has worked closely with NASA on every mission flown to Mars, pooling knowledge and manufacturing resources on aspects of orbiters, landers, and rovers. As the expert on hand explained, “we have to collaborate—no one can do everything, all by themselves.”
As part of the Saturday speaker series, NASA astronaut Jeff Williams was livestreamed from the International Space Station onto the festival’s stage. Young audience members were given the opportunity to ask him questions like “What does it smell like in space?” and “What happens to your body when you live in space?” Life in space is something that Williams knows well, having spent 534 cumulative days in space. And as it turns out, Williams, space travel, and the modern media age are old friends—in 2009, he formed part of the first NASA team to hold a live Twitter event in space.
Giants of calculator history, Texas Instruments, demonstrated a new line of STEM-friendly educational calculators. Their new TI-Innovator System allows students to learn the basics of computer coding (in BASIC language, no less) on their calculators, building skills bit-by-bit in a series of “10 Minutes of Code” lesson plans. Sympathetic to the idea that STEM concepts are best enacted in some kind of physical reality, beyond the calculator’s screen, the company has created the TI-Innovator Hub (the clear box depicted lower center). The Hub, linked up to a calculator, can activate a variety of functions: LED lights, speakers, optical sensors, and ports that allow it to communicate with external breadboards, computers, and other controllers. In this image, the Hub has been programmed to raise and lower a spool of string, meant to mimic the mathematical problem of how low to lower a fishing boat anchor.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communication & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
science fairs, Maker Faire Detroit
“We’re going to let people try and hack the museum?!”
When I first heard this a few months back, my jaw dropped. Hack the museum?! What?! Are you serious? What museum would even think of doing such a thing? Well, The Henry Ford would. We were indeed opening ourselves up to hacking, but not like you would first think.
As part of Maker Faire Detroit 2013, our partners at Compuware came up with the great idea to host our first-ever hackathon inside Henry Ford Museum with the challenge of “creating an application which combines The Henry Ford’s digital collection with the imagination and power that are an essential part of the mobile culture today.” We were opening ourselves up to hacking, but by way of APIs used with our digital collections.
Nestled above the “Heroes of the Sky” exhibit toward the back of the museum, six teams worked all day Saturday trying to create the most unique app for us possible. Nineteen participants, some local, some from out of town, consumed a lot of caffeinated beverages and wrote a lot of code as the faire happened around them.
Mike Butman, our Chief Information Officer at The Henry Ford, worked with the teams on how best to access the collections’ APIs throughout the day. For Mike, the hackathon was not only a way to see new ideas, but a source of inspiration and personal challenge.
“It was extremely invigorating,” Mike told me. “Not just to see the technical components, but to see the outside perspective and how these individuals could develop something for our guests to interact with.”
With their work done at the end of the day on Saturday, all that was left was a presentation to our team of judges. The six teams presented their ideas and made their cases in front of our judges. The judges that had the tough job of selecting just one winner included:
Matthew David, Chief Digital Strategist at Compuware
Eric Weinhoffer, Product Development Engineer at MAKE
Bruce Elenbogen, Associate Professor of Computer Information Systems at UofM Dearborn
Lauren Ann Davies, Deadline Detroit
Marilyn Zoidis, Director of Historical Resources at The Henry Ford
In the end, we had one winner and two runners-up (I said it was a tough choice). Team 42 and Chi-Ackers took second place with Sam Harrell of Team Sam taking home top honors. What was the app that wowed our judges so much?
The app used image recognition with computer vision, kind of like augmented reality.
Guests take the app and move it across a sign. The app recognizes points on the sign and pulls related information from the digital collections of The Henry Ford.
The app can then also translate the information into dozens of languages. It’s easy to use. Instead of looking for information on multiple web pages within your mobile browser, all related items are pulled together all in one place.
Sam had been thinking of an app like this for a while. The hackathon, with the access to our APIs, was just what he needed to pull it all together.
“I loved the thrill of starting something from scratch and building it out,” he said.
Will you see the app anytime soon? There’s consideration here at the institution of being able to make something out of the results from the hackathons, like the one at Maker Faire Detroit, in the future.
For Compuware’s Matthew David, suggesting a hackathon as part of their Maker Faire Detroit sponsorship was a natural idea. Hackathons all across the globe continue to gain popularity. For small groups of people, a hackathon often gives them the opportunity to not only be developers but also entrepreneurs. Did you know that the Facebook “Like” button was the result of a Facebook hackathon?!
“When you work on emerging technology, you’re so very passionate about it,” Matthew said. “Being up to your eyeballs in code, racing against the clock for a fun prize... people are doing it for the honor of winning. They light up Silicon Valley passions outside of Silicon Valley. Folks really can do something. These solutions emerging and then happening? That’s pretty fantastic.”
Digital Collections Initiative Manager Ellice Engdahl proudly watched the presentations the next day on Sunday. To the leader of the team creating and publishing our digital collections, the idea of allowing outside developers access to our raw data meant a lot.
“The true purpose of digitizing our collections, both on the floor and in storage, is to make them available. If our digital assets aren’t used, there’s no point in creating them,” Ellice said. “It was fabulous to see creative programmers find new ways to share our materials.”
Ellice also really appreciated the thoughtful way each team approached the challenge and brought their own perspective to it.
“Team 42 was interested in engaging diverse audiences, Team Chi-Ackers wanted to encourage learning through collections-related gaming, Team CIA encouraged easy sharing from the museum to visitors and from visitors to visitors, Team Handsome Quartet encouraged users to gain social badges through viewing collections objects, Team Sam thought about how the existing labels on the Museum floor could be improved and enhanced, and Team Wambatech incorporated outside videos and images alongside our own assets,” she said. “It was great to see such a variety of results coming out of the teams’ original goals and perspectives, and exciting to think of the diverse audiences that would appreciate all the teams’ efforts.”
While the hackathon has come and gone for 2013, the enthusiasm is here to stay. You can keep up to date with Maker Faire Detroit updates on our website and through our enthusiast channel, OnMaking.
If you had a chance to create an app for The Henry Ford, what would you make?
Maker Faire Detroit 2013 Hack the Museum Participants
Sam Harrell - Chief Hacker
John Leftwich - HTML/CSS/design - Education Consultant
Katherine Scott - Interaction Engineer/IMAGINEER
Jennifer A. Scroggins - Front-end design and dev; HTML/CSS; all-around idea person museum junkie
Jeff Molsen - Development
Cody Greene - Robotics and Development
Dennis J. Schleicher, Jr. - User Experience
The Handsome Quartet
Jon Radon - Moral Support
Robert Muhic - Core Operations Development Engineer, Manager of Nightly key Enterprise Yodeling
Eric Panek - Senior IT Director of Enterprise Code Monkey Operations Architect and Human Resources II
Peter Richards - Developer & Senior Caffeine Acquisition Officer
Creative Innovators Achievers (CIA)
Mukesh Gupta - Lead
Krishna Mudiraj - Developer/Designer
Reda Bouaichi - Developer/Designer
Vijay Vardhan - Architect
Jason Rodriguez - Designer
Shane O’Dell - Developer
Jeff Goergen - Developer
Nathaniel Plane - Developer/Team Lead
Lish Dorset is Social Media Manager at The Henry Ford.
computers, hacking, Maker Faire Detroit, making