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It’s a Thursday night at the Black Cat, and aloof 20-somethings in shapeless shirts and skinny jeans are leaning against the bar, angling for drinks. They are temporarily out of luck: The bartender is deep in conversation with Arthur Harrison, 55, and the topic is theremins.
At her request, Harrison produces the instrument seemingly out of nowhere. Reaching below his barstool, he picks up two flat metal plates, and attaches them to a black box. Then he switches the battery-powered contraption on, waves his hands, and produces a warbley, space-noise version of “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” “It’s easy to draw a crowd with these contraptions,” Harrison says.
He’s right: It doesn’t take long for people to gather around Harrison like eager science students, asking what the thing is and how it works. They’ve found the right guy. Harrison may look like an average middle-aged man, but among theremin enthusiasts, he’s a damn big deal, says Jason Barile, curator of ThereminWorld.com. “Pretty much everyone who has thought about buying or building a theremin has heard of Arthur Harrison,” Barile says.
That’s a small world, but even people who don’t know the theremin by name probably know its sound. On movie soundtracks, the instrument’s otherworldly warble is aural shorthand for “spooky,” and a theremin-like instrument takes the lead on The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” Invented by Russian engineer Lev Sergeyvich Termin around 1920, the theremin caught the attention of Vladimir Lenin, who took lessons and ordered hundreds built. He also sent Termin on a tour of the United States to showcase his instrument (and conduct a little industrial espionage along the way).
In America, the theremin worked its peculiar charisma on RCA executives, convincing them that the instrument belonged in every living room. Advertisements from the 1930s trumpeted it as “an absolutely new, unique musical instrument anyone can play.” They were about two-thirds right, says Barile. The theremin was certainly new and unique. The only instrument you play without touching, it works by generating electrical fields that the player disturbs with his hands. But it’s not easy to play. “Anyone can get a noise out of it, but playing a recognizable tune takes a lot of practice,” Barile says. That difficulty, and the fact that RCA released it during the Great Depression, resulted in poor sales.
What makes the theremin so tricky is the instrument’s lack of frets or keys. Theremin players pluck notes out of thin air, a skill that takes hundreds of hours of practice as well as excellent muscle memory and pitch perception. But, despite its difficulty—or perhaps because of it—the theremin has inspired a devoted cult of players, builders, and designers.
“The theremin finds people that have that kind of weird passion about them,” says Barile. “There are a lot of characters in the theremin space.”
That’s a fair description of Harrison, who built his first theremin in 1996. That instrument was an odd bird, even by theremin standards, as it used infrared light instead of electromagnetic fields. Harrison found more success with less innovative designs, including a vacuum-tube theremin with a vintage sound, says fellow theremin designer Mark Kepp. “The tubes have a personality and a warmth and a feel to them,” says Kepp. “People really like the crackly radio-in-grandma’s-living-room sound.”
That vacuum-tube contraption is just one of many theremins scattered around Harrison’s otherwise tidy Rockville house. Here, a dozen artfully arranged instruments chorus together on a sun-dappled windowsill. A metal wrack in the dining room holds pieces of theremins-in-the-making, and a brightly colored plastic arch on the floor contains a weatherproof, crank-operated theremin that may someday find its way into a playground.
While Harrison sells his inventions, hundreds of them a year, he also publishes his schematics online so that anyone can copy his designs. That open-source ethic has made him popular among theremin enthusiasts—the kind of people who tend to own soldering guns. “There’s something special about building your own theremin; it’s like a Jedi making his own light saber,” says Barile.
For Harrison, it’s more like building his own vocal chords.
“I love singing, but my range is terrible,” says Harrison. “With a theremin, I have all the vocal range I need and more.”
A limited singing voice, however, hasn’t kept Harrison away from D.C.’s music scene for the last 40 years. In the 1970s, Harrison spoke-sang and played homemade sequencers in the band Jobs for America. The group released basement recordings, played at open mics, and managed to book a few shows at legit clubs, including D.C. Space. (The drummer, Brian Horowitz, went on to found The Ubangis.) For the next two decades, Harrison played with a variety of bands, made dozens of recordings, and performed in D.C. and Baltimore, but his music career didn’t really take off until 2003.
In October of that year, Harrison visited Arlington’s Galaxy Hut to see The Cassettes, a local, self-described steampunk band with odd instrumentation: Shelby Cinca on slide guitar and vocals; Saadat Awan on tabla, a classical Indian drum; and Stephen Guidry on accordion and keyboard. Guidry had forgotten the keyboard’s power cord, so he invited Harrison to fill in. (Harrison and Guidry played together in another outfit.)
“Artie, of course, always has a theremin with him, so he just got up and played with us,” says Cinca. Though Harrison is two decades older than the other members of the band, his theremin fit perfectly with The Cassettes’ sound, says Guidry, and the band recruited him as a permanent member.
“We were all playing instruments that in other contexts could have been novelty-style instruments, and we, I think, took them and really did something musical with them,” Guidry says.
Soon after acquiring Harrison, the group signed to L.A.-based Buddyhead Records, and released ’Neath the Pale Moon in 2006. The album caught the attention of some music critics and bloggers, and the group went from playing tiny Arlington cafes like Galaxy Hut to, well, larger Arlington cafes like Iota. Farther-flung shows, however, posed a problem for Harrison. In addition to the usual aches and pains of middle age, Harrison has fibromyalgia, which makes sitting for extended periods of time extremely uncomfortable. “I don’t travel well,” he says.
So when Buddyhead sent The Cassettes on a four-week, cross-country tour, Harrison joined them at the halfway mark, in Seattle. He spent two weeks on tour in a crowded Chevy van, crashing on couches and sleeping on floors like his much younger bandmates. “Sometimes, I’d beg Shelby to drop me off at the nearest motel,” he says.
What kept him going despite the discomfort? “My ego,” says Harrison.
It’s true that Harrison had his share of fans, says Cinca. In fact, Harrison’s the only member of the band to be flashed midshow, by a woman at the Black Cat who then laid down underneath the theremin and rolled around moaning, Cinca says. But he suspects Harrison is more driven by his love of his instrument than the groupies.
“We’d get to the club and set up, and Artie would go straight outside on the street with his little Vox amp and play theremin for two hours until the show,” says Cinca. “He’d bring in huge audiences that way.”
“He literally wants to play his instrument 24 hours a day,” says Guidry.
The Cassettes never found mainstream success. After the cross-country tour, the band’s booking agent quit and its label became less supportive, says Cinca. The band went on hiatus in 2008, when Cinca moved to Sweden to be closer to his ailing father. Cinca is now contemplating a move back to America to reunite The Cassettes, but Harrison worries that his rock star years may finally be over.
“I don’t know what will happen,” he says. “I don’t want to give up my music career over some aches and pains, but [touring] will be more of a challenge now than when I was 47.”
Nerve pain and creeping arthritis, however, haven’t kept Harrison from becoming a sought-after studio musician. Connections he made through The Cassettes have brought him dozens of recording gigs, including a movie soundtrack (for a John Goodman-narrated documentary about hot rods) and a heavy metal album (Dead To Fall’s Are You Serious?). He’s also become D.C.’s go-to indie rock thereminst, playing local shows with bands like The Torches (Guidry’s current band) and These United States. These gigs often bring him back to the Black Cat, where he spends the hours between soundcheck and showtime playing on the sidewalk in front of the club. But more often, you can find Harrison practicing his theremin outside of his favorite Chinese restaurant, the New Mandarin, in Rockville.
“Oftentimes the best place to play is in a lonely parking lot,” he says, “sitting on the tailgate of your car.”
Photos and video by Darrow Montgomery