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The Essay
Show #441
David Gunn

As every third grade astrophysicist knows, thermodynamics is the relationship between heat and other forms of energy, such as flatulence. Three unassailable laws govern the vagaries of thermodynamics: (1) you can't get energy to go away, no matter how hard you try; (2) if you try really hard, you can at least get it to abate a bit; (3) a diet rich in oligosaccharides will increase a person's flatulent proclivities big time. Applying these three laws, Science has been able to (4) fly ants to the moon, (5) arrange huge piles of thermonuclear waste into anthropomorphically decorative shapes, and concoct (6) a flatus deterrent called Beano.

A recently discovered fourth law of thermodynamics states that it has no affiliation, either expressed or implied, to theremindynamics, the relationship between a musician and an electronic instrument invented in the 1920s that's played by waggling a pair of hands around it in a semaphore-like motion. The law further seeks to distance itself from the instrument by likening the sound it produces to feeding a vole through a Ronco Vegematic. But, likening it or not, the theremin, the instrument for which theremindynamics is held accountable, is, thanks to a handful of rabid aficionados, still alive today.

Theremin is short for The Remington, a combination typewriter and sewing machine invented in the late nineteenth century by Philo Remington, who inherited a munitions company from his dad, Elephant. The Remington was supposed to be a labor saving device. An early print advertisement showed a clever person simultaneously writing wrongs and sewing rumors and dissension. However, whenever the machine was operated in high dudgeon, which was most of the time, it also emitted a kind of woo-woo-woo sound, not unlike the sound a mandrill makes when suffering a flatulent episode. Users found this annoying, not to mention fetid, and the machine gradually fell out of favor. But it just as steadily began to garner support from a coterie of off-the-beat musicians whose smell organs had been compromised by years of nosal neglect. For thirty years these musicians tinkered with The Remington, attempting without appreciable success to enhance its sonic nature. Then in 1924, a Russian flatulologist replaced the threaded shuttle with a vertical antenna and the shift bar with a horizontal one, added a black knob and an Atlas microphone stand flange, and the modern day theremin was born, kicking and screaming and expelling intestinal gas. Even with the flatulologist's refinements, though, the instrument was not an instant hit. One review of a performance in the thereminic hotbed of Thereminneapolis called the sounds it produced the "musical equivalent of a rain shadow with gas."

Certain indisputable laws govern the vagility of the theremin, too. According to the First Law of Theremindynamics, the greater the mass of a theremin is, the greater is its resistance to acceleration. In other words, the bigger they come, the harder they fall, which is why theremins are typically bred to be no bigger than a breadbox. Some musical cognoscenti, however, dispute this law. They claim to have raised theremins that exceed ten meters in length that have suffered no ill effects when dropped on their heads. On the other hand, the Second Law (Pluperfect) of Theremindynamics is not in dispute. It states that "Nature abhors a vacuum, so don't play the instrument like one!" For reasons not entirely clear, the Theremindynamical Third Law is expressed in Esperanto, viz.: "La vesperto, do, uzas tiun saman principon je kiu la bazarro-aparato estas teremino." A satisfactory translation upon which everyone agrees has never been found, so this law is better off disregarded.

"Disregarded" is one adjective rarely applied to the theremin, because it's so hard to do. Just quiescently sitting there, with its forty-foot tendril-like antennas snaking through the performance area, coolly snuffling the audients, its potentiometers whirring and clicking in an analog language known only to itself, and its -4,000 kilohertz idling frequency slightly altering the magneto-acoustic field at the Earth's core, The Remington is not an instrument that is easily ignored.

Ignorance is at the heart of this 441st episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, as we attempt to apply the Fourth Law of Theremindynamics: "Any theremin in a state of rest tends to remain in that state unless acted upon by an unbalanced external force," and who better to exemplify those unbalanced forces than Kalvos?