In my prose-poem cycle “Constellations for Theremin,” I attempted to use the theremin as a literary device. Attributing to the theremin the healing power of the Orphic lyre, I constellated the wounded words of the poets Paul Celan and Yvan Goll (the former was accused of plagiarizing the latter) within a redemptive force-field. This work brought my passion for the theremin to the attention of my friends, who conspired to surprise me with the gift of a Moog Etherwave theremin, the best available. (The instigator of this conspiracy was Jeff Clark, joined by Garrett Caples, Barbara Guest, and our partners.)
I had never received musical training or played an instrument of any kind—not necessarily hinderances to using the theremin as a philosophical sound-tool, a modern monochord. (By the same token, I had never received any training to become a poet, having always avoided taking classes in literature or creative writing.) Yet merely generating raw harmonics by gesturing toward the two antennas soon proved unsatisfying. I had to admit I wanted to make music, to pull Orphic song out of the force-field of the theremin. Per aspera ad astra: I eventually taught myself to play the thing, but it wasn’t easy. (My first public performance on theremin was at Poets’ Theater in San Francisco, where I staged a production of Yvor Winters’s puppet play The Immobile Wind.)
A turning point in my relation to the instrument was reached when my friend Brian Lucas—a Renaissance man practicing visual art, poetry, and music, all with a cosmic orientation—returned from a long sojourn in Thailand. He invited me to bring the theremin to his place in Alameda for an improvisational jam session. With Brian playing electric bass and pedals, we created a drifting, droning sound-cloud of gathering intensity. In that session, the theremin came alive under my hands as it had never done before.
When the elements of a newly developing system fall into place, it often happens quickly: a few days or weeks after that session, we heard Joseph Noble (also a poet) playing saxophone at a house concert in Oakland, and invited him to join us on our search for the hum of the Earth. The resulting interplay between theremin, bass, and sax hummed with a life of its own, and so a band was born. We first called ourselves Free Rein, after the title of a book by André Breton; we later decided to change the band’s name to Cloud Shepherd (after the bronze sculpture by Jean Arp) to more appropriately reflect our commitment to the pasturing of ever-changing, nonlinear cumulations of sound.
I have begun to play the theremin in other contexts as well, recently sitting in with the saxophonist Sheldon Brown’s avant-jazz unit Distant Intervals, and forming a raga-rock duo, As the Crow Flies, with Brian Strang (poet and artist) on guitar.