An interview with canadian thereminist Peter Pringle.
Peter Pringle is an eclectic musician, singer and songwriter from Canada. He became involved in music as a child singing with the children’s chorus of the Canadian Opera Company and studying classical piano. In the 1960’s he moved to the United States where he started a successful songwriting and filmscoring activity and began studying classical lute with the former theremin cellist Leonid Bolotine. In the mid 1960’s he went to India to study the surbahar (an instrument similar to the sitar but larger and with a deeper tone) and indian music with Ravi Shankar. From the mid 70’s Peter Pringle developed his career as a pop singer, putting out several LP’s and starring in TV shows. He also toured in his one-man-show Noel Coward: A Portrait and performed it for President Bush (senior) and the British royal family. Peter pringle plays many different musical instruments, but it was only in 1996, after he retired from the pop music scene, that he discovered the theremin and devoted his time and energies to the study of this intrument. After almost six years of studies and experimentation he has released Many Voices, his first theremin CD.
Saggini: Looking at your theremin repertoire becomes pretty evident your love for opera music. And, referring to your theremin player activity, you once said that you’re a “Maria Callas wannabee”; in another occasion, you explained why you have preference for the highest registers of the theremin saying that you are “obsessed with sopranos”. I’ve also read that you studied singing at the children’s chorus of the Canadian Opera Company, but you left the school when, as you were growing up, your voice changed from soprano to baritone. Is your current dedication to the theremin a way to settle an old account?
Pringle: Yes, I think this is probably true, although I am not consciously aware of it. I have loved opera (and in particular ITALIAN opera) since I was about 7 or 8 years old. Although I may have had a voice suitable for classical music when I was a little boy, my adult voice was definitely better suited to popular music. I might add that it is also much easier to make a living in popular music than it is in classical.
Two of the important operas that I sang in as a child, and that stand out very clearly in my mind were Puccini’s TOSCA (the voice of the shepherd boy in Act III) and Gian Carlo Menotti’s AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS.
The wonderful thing about speaking to Italians about my love of opera, my love of the voices of Gigli, Tebaldi, Gobbi and many, many others, is that I don’t have to explain it or apologize for it. Italians understand, even younger Italians, because they grow up with it. In most of the world, opera has traditionally been an artform for the elite and the aristocracy. In Italy it is the music of the people. This will probably change over the next few generations as music and entertainment become increasingly americanized throughout the world.
Saggini: Americanization is running faster than you may think. Anyway, speaking of singing and singing with the theremin, I remember that Léon Theremin once said that “ether wave music is created with a simplicity and a directness matched only by singing”. We should know by now that playing the theremin is not as easy as Léon Theremin and RCA marketing copy-writers said, but I’d like to know if once you master the instrument you feel something similar to the joy of singing.
Pringle: I definitely do. Perhaps that is because I have always been a singer. It is possible that someone who plays the violin or the cello would feel differently about it. One of the things about playing great vocal music on the theremin is that you can play something you could not possibly ever sing. I cannot sing NESSUN DORMA but I can play it on the theremin and get a tremendous amount of pleasure doing it.
I noticed when I first started playing the theremin, that I had a tendency to “sub-vocalize” when I played. That means that I had all the tension in my vocal cords that a singer would have, but I was not making any audible vocal sound. I STILL DO THAT! I tried to stop myself from doing it, but it required too much concentration just to remember NOT to do it. When you play the theremin, there is no room for concentration on anything except playing.
Saggini: In your CD there is a piece entitled “Ellington on 54th Street” and this makes me wonder of what could had happened if Ellington had experimented with the theremin when he tried to make musical instruments sound as the human voice and viceversa. The unique features of the theremin, as described passionately by Clara Rockmore in the interview to Bob Moog, seem to share something of both. What do you think?
Pringle: I was asking myself the same question when I wrote ELLINGTON ON 54TH STREET. How would someone like Duke Ellington have used the theremin? Of course, we will never know the answer to this question but it is fun to experiment with possibilities. As you know, West 54th Street in Manhattan, was where Leon Theremin had his research studio and laboratory during the 1930’s.
Yes, the theremin has many of the qualities of both an instrument AND the human voice. The problem with the theremin in the 1930’s was that most thereminists – even the professional ones – were not very good. The exception was Clara Rockmore, who was probably the finest theremin virtuoso who ever lived, but she played mainly transcriptions of classical music written originally for the violin or cello, and would probably not have been very interested in experimenting with Jazz.
Samuel Hoffman, although he had been playing for quite a long time, did not appear on the theremin scene until after 1945, which was the end of the “Big Band Era” and he never showed much interest in Jazz.
The advantage that modern thereminists have is that an instrument now exists (the Moog Music Ethervox theremin) that is reliable and has a range three times greater than the range of the original RCA instruments. We can now experiment with all sorts of sounds that would have been unthinkable for the early pioneers of the theremin.
Saggini: So what about a theremin rendition of Adelaide Hall‘s vocal line in “Creole Love Call”?
Pringle: One of the things about the theremin is that it has a great sense of humor! It could do a great Adelaide Hall – or Jeannette Macdonald (Indian Love Call).
Saggini: Leon Theremin and Leopold Stokowski repeatedly said that the theremin would have been used for the “music of the future”. Unfortunately this didn’t happen, and today, after one hundred years of permanent avantgarde, becomes legitimate to think that the music of the future will be very similar to the music of the past. What do you think about it, and what could be the future of the theremin?
Pringle: It is difficult to say what people like Leon Theremin, Leopold Stokowski, Percy Grainger and many others, actually meant when they referred to “the music of the future”. Many of these men spoke very grandly of some artistic Utopia where musicians would be “freed from the constraints and limitations of keys and strings and wooden boxes”. This is a very appealing idea but, like all Utopias, it is a fictional concept. In the final analysis, audiences do not seem to enjoy these forays into this mythical musical future. Composers and performers must always ask themselves, ‘What am I creating? Will people be moved by what I am doing? Am I writing music for today, or am I composing for future listeners that I have created in my imagination?’
Saggini: You own Samuel Hoffman’s theremin, which was used in more than forty film soundtracks. Do you think that the theremin could still be interesting to soundtrack composers?
Pringle: Yes. I do think the theremin could be interesting to composers of all sorts of music – not just film sound tracks. The problem with the theremin has always been, ‘WHO IS GOING TO PLAY IT?’ The theremin has a unique quality that cannot be successfully imitated by other instruments or by keyboard samplers. The difficulty is that there are only a few thereminists in the world who are going to be able to make your musical concept a reality. This was true when composer Miklos Rozsa first used the theremin on the sound track of Alfred Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND, and it is still true today.
Saggini: You’ve had a long career in music as a songwriter, filmscore writer and also as a singer; and you’ve played many different musical intruments. Then in 1996, only after many years on the music scene, you discovered the theremin. Can you tell us what happened?
Pringle: One afternoon, in 1996, I turned on the radio and heard a sound that stopped me in my tracks. I did not know what I was listening to because the composition had already started. Was it a human voice? Was it a machine? WHAT WAS IT? It turned out to be Clara Rockmore’s recording of her theremin signature song, THE SWAN, by the 19th century French composer, Camille Saint-Saens. Like many other people, I fell in love with the theremin. I had heard the theremin many times but until that moment I had no idea that it could be played with such musicality and sensitivity. I always thought it was just an effects device used for suspense and horror films.
I immediately ordered an Etherwave theremin kit from Moog Music, assembled it the moment it arrived, and proceeded to teach myself how to play it.
Saggini: What happened next? Tell us about the first impact with the instrument and about what made you decide to become a professional thereminist.
Pringle: I never decided to become a professional thereminist. It just happened! A thereminist needs three things: a very good ear for pitch (you do not need “perfect pitch”), a steady hand with good hand/ear coordination, and excellent muscle memory.
I have done many theremin presentations and at the end of a demonstration I always invite people to come up onto the stage and try out the instrument. I have noticed over the years that there are certain people who take to the instrument instantly, and who can play better after 30 seconds than some people can after 30 years. Of course, that does not mean that they are goiing to love it or that they are going to want to learn to play the theremin but if they did, they would advance very quickly.
One of the advantages I had in becoming a precision thereminist is that I had a huge repertoire of music in my head before I started. I have played the piano since I was a child, and I picked up several other instruments over the years. When I took up the theremin in 1996, the music was already inside my head. I just had to learn to express it on the theremin.
Saggini: Is the theremin the most important instrument in this particular moment of your artistic life? And do you feel that your love for the theremin will be forever, or it can be that in the future your time and energies will be devoted to some other instrument?
Pringle: We never know what the future will bring but, for the moment, certainly the theremin is the most important instrument in my musical life. One thing about it, however, is that my interest in the theremin and my need to be able to accompany myself on other instruments, has caused me to become a better piano player, a better harpist, and better at a number of other instruments that I use in combination with the theremin.
Anyone who plays an instrument that is monophonic (like the flute or the oboe that have only one voice) is going to have to provide accompaniment for their repertoire. As the virtuoso thereminist, Clara Rockmore, once said in an interview, “I had the good luck to be born the sister of the great pianist Nadia Reisenberg”. Of course, these days we have multi-track recording (which was not available in the 1930’s) so if you can play another instrument, it is possible to accompany yourself for the purpose of recording. On stage, it is another matter.