February 7, 2013

The man who played trombone with Glenn Miller and the theremin with The Beach Boys...

... was Paul Tanner, who has died at the age of 95.
Tanner's involvement with electronic musical instruments began in the '50s, when he was drawn to the sound of the theremin, with its eerie, sliding notes. (It was notably present in the film scores for "The Lost Weekend" and "Spellbound.")

Fond of its unique tonal qualities, he was bothered by the theremin's playing technique, which required the performer to control it by waving one's hands. Working with inventor Bob Whitsell, Tanner designed an instrument that initially he called the electro-theremin. Eventually, it also received the name Tannerin, although Tanner preferred the title Paul's Box. Unlike the theremin, its method of playing was closer to that of traditional keyboard instruments.
Much as I understand the ease of the keyboard, I love the hand waving used on the original Theremin, which you can see played here by its inventor Leon Theremin:



Here's a terrific documentary about the Theremin. And here's how it looked when The Glenn Miller Orchestra played "In the Mood":



Not an electronic instrument in sight. This was my parents' favorite music, and I wish I had videos of the arguments I had with my father in the 1960s in which he took the position that if the instruments were electrified, it was — as a matter of definition — not music at all, and I got extremely exasperated, staunchly refused to submit to the playing of his old records, and repeatedly asserted that I liked rock and roll because of "the sound." The sound? Define your terms!

Here's a 10-CD set of Glenn Miller music for less than $20. You'll have to use electricity to play it, but I think my father would approve.

34 comments:

Mitchell the Bat said...

It looks like the Theremin gave the player a pretty solid shoulder workout and I'll bet those guys who played those old archtops could crush rocks with their bare hands.

Mitchell the Bat said...

I once thought I'd win an argument with my father by pointing out that several songs he liked on the radio were actually cover versions of Beatles songs.

I lost anyway.

Might makes right, was the takeaway.

Bob Ellison said...

A good Theremin costs a pretty penny. The inventor is surprisingly adept in that clip you posted. Makes the "Good Vibrations" effort seem juvenile.

Ann Althouse said...

"The inventor is surprisingly adept in that clip you posted. Makes the "Good Vibrations" effort seem juvenile."

Theremin is going for imitation of the violin. Good Vibrations embraces the outer-spacey aura.

MadisonMan said...

"I've always been very lucky," he told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1986, "in that I've never had a job I didn't enjoy or one that didn't pay well."

We should all be so lucky.

jr565 said...

This conversation reminds me of Jim (Roger Mcquinns) statement of how music changed and was tied to the changing mechanical sounds of the day (Found on the liner notes to the Mr Tambourine Man album)

"I think the difference is in the mechanical sounds of our time. Like the sound of the airplane in the Forties was a rrrrrrrroooooaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh sound and Sinatra and other people sang like that with those sort of overtones. Now we’ve got the krrrriiiisssssssshhhhhhhh jet sound, and the kids are singing up in there now. It’s the mechanical sounds of the era: the sounds are different and so the music is different. I trust everything will turn out all right.”

Could it really be that simple? Maybe music sucks now because we no longer value the jet sounds and instead want to have some sort of touchy feely environmentally safe sound that can only come from using approved alternative energies.


Jet pilots were mavericks as were early rock and rollers (at least in their own minds) As such their music reflected this mindset. Big and daring.

YoungHegelian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bob R said...

No electronic instruments, but a lot of big bands embraced electric guitars when they first came out. Did you point Charlie Christian, Barney Kessel, Howard Roberts out to your father?

JBC said...

The Theramin should never be mentioned without mentioning Jimmy Page.

YoungHegelian said...

Tanner also played theremin on this Bernard Herrmann classic score.

I think BH is probably my all time favorite movie score composer even better than Korngold.

rhhardin said...

Theramin and vitamin C.

David said...

I've got the Glenn Miller LP set from the 1950's that belonged to my parents. Over 12 LPs. Just about every performance Miller ever recorded. They were not doing it in studio. No lip syncing. They had to be on their game every night, and they were. It's terrific music.

Old RPM Daddy said...

Led Zeppelin used the thing from time to time as well. It can be heard on "Whole Lotta Love," "In the Light" and probably others. Here's Jimmy Page messing with one on stage a few years back:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1JtLHa3q37w

They also used a gadget called a Mellotron, which was a keyboard instrument whose keys activated tapes of pre-recorded instruments. John Paul Jones said in an interview that using the instrument in a live performance was a little dodgy, since the tapes could expand or contract depending on how hot it was on stage, making the tone a little unpredictable.

Mitchell the Bat said...

I think the way it worked in the old days was the drummer hit the cowbell to tell the band leader the dancers were getting tired so it's about time to end the song.

Carol said...

Once you get past the Glenn Miller thing, get Duke in Fargo..recorded live on two mics and acetate disks circa 1940, at a ballroom in Fargo, ND.

Outstanding, except for the singers, who were lame.

edutcher said...

The Dub Taylor or Hank Worden of music.

Unknown said...

That's real theremin on The Day The Earth Stood Still and not Paul Tanner

YoungHegelian said...

@unknown,

You, according to google, are correct, sir (or ma'am).

The web site theremin.info says it was two players: Dr Samuel Hoffman & Paul Shure.

Which also means that other sources I've heard on this matter have led me astray.

John said...

Whoa! I thought I stepped into a time warp and wound up on the Bleat. Which is OK because I am a big Lileks fan.

I love those old big bands and Glenn Miller was pretty good. I like Artie Shaw too but disagree with his assertion that Miller's music should have died instead of him.

There is a pretty good biopic with Jimmy Stewart as Glenn Miller and Henry Morgan as his sidekick.

I'll bet I could buy it on our hostess's portal.

John Henry

Crimso said...

The Mellotron is arguably the sound most closely associated with prog rock. Everyone has heard them, but not many recognize that's what they're hearing. Nothing sounds quite like it. And as Robert Fripp once said: "When you tune a Mellotron, you don't."

What I find especially interesting about the Mellotron is that it can be used to make a very wide range of music, but rock bands typically only used a very narrow slice of its total capabilities (which, again, created a very distinctive sound, haunting and apocalyptic).

Saw Page McConnell of Phish play a Theremin at one of their shows. The science center in the next town over actually has a Theremin. It is a "hands on" science center, so you can try to play it. I stress the word "try."

Forthenri said...

Sheldon's father?

LordSomber said...

"A good Theremin costs a pretty penny."

If you are talking about vintage Theramins, yes.

Theramins are very basic -- an oscillator for pitch and one for amplitude.
Theramin kits are only two or three hundred bucks, and "Mini-Theramin" kits are under $100.

Conserve Liberty said...

Huh. This post is either about another old guy who died, which seems to be happening all the time lately, or the theremin, or rock and roll vs. our fathers' music, or Glenn Miller specifically, or just about our fathers. It is important to know which, so I can commment.

My father didn't really fight the sixties. He tried to be hip. He became enamoured of the theremin after the St. Louis Symphony presented some piece that called for one in the Score.

He liked (or so he said) Eric Clapton because his music had "a beat, like swing."

He tried pot and wore a Nehru jacket and a peace symbol around the house and had a handlebar moustache and sideburns and subscribed to Avant Garde magazine and listened to KDNA FM Radio and -- for God's sake -- tried to talk to my girlfriend.

I hope I didn't grow up to be my father. It hurt too much then and it would hurt to much now to know I did.

Strelnikov said...

Of course,the most famous Theremin riff of all time is the title music from the original "Star Trek" TV series.

ricpic said...

What about the Australian Aborigine who invented the didgeridoo? When is he going to get his due? Smells an awful lot like racism to me!

Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

What I really noticed was that one poor little guitar "drownded" our amongst all that brass and woodwinds. I wonder what his role was in the musical texture, because I don't hear it at all.

Then again, I played trombone, sousaphone, and some baritone horn so I listen mostly to brass. Interesting detail ... the trumpet is fingered just like the baritone, but those poor suckers have to use the treble clef.

Mark O said...

Good to see Tex Beneke

RecChief said...

by the way, Theramin disappeared. he was taken back to Soviet Russia, where the KGB used him to invent a listening device that was planted in the US embassy. Known as 'the thing' or 'the great seal bug'

virgil xenophon said...

David@10:49am/

Hey, I've got that same set! Plus a slew of Artie Shaw, Harry James, The Dorsey Bros, Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall, etc. Plus Glen Gray and his Casa Loma Band. (LUV the song "Smoke-rings" on that Album)

And picking up on the comments of "Conserve Liberty" I'd make the observation that the post-WW II generations that followed are probably unique in that their (our) musical tastes have evolved with the very beginning of rock & roll with no discernable break, whereas the "greatest generation" of my parents stayed stuck in the musical time-warp of the 30s& 40s and never did make the transition.

(Actually, I'm a "tweener"--a part of the "War Baby" generation born in 1944 just prior to the "Boomers"--I had just become a teenager in 1956 when Elvis hit national TV on the Tommy Dorsey and Ed Sullivan shows--prior to that everything was pretty much "How much is that doggie in the window." LOL. I remember thinking when I first saw Elvis: "Well, THAT changes EVERYTHING!")

virgil xenophon said...

PS: Actually, I can also remember listening to Chuck Barry on the radio prior to 1956 and going to the old 30s art-deco Will Rodgers theater in town to see Bill Haley in the 1956 movie "Rock Around The Clock."--a seminal year to turn thirteen, lol.

Stephen Snell said...

Theremin lived to be 97 years old and died in Moscow in 1993 (his time in the GULag/camps was relatively brief).

ken in sc said...

Glenn Miller is good. His band still plays as the Airmen of Note, a USAF band. But as a trombone player I wanted to sound like Tommy Dorsey. His sound was so smooth. Trumpet players wanted to sound like Don Jakoby or Al Hirt. Clarinet players wanted to sound like Pete Fountain. At least we had someone to look to. Who is there now?

Dante said...

In the mood gives me music tickles.

William said...

I have a Glenn Miller cd, but I haven't played it in quite a while. I like some of his songs because my parents played them when I was a kid. Glenn Miller made it to CD, but he didn't make it to my itunes. I guess you could say he didn't make the posterity cut......I have some Benny Goodman songs, but they're there most because of the vocalist, Peggy Lee. I think more people listen to Tommy Dorsey because of Frank Sinatra than for any Tommy Dorsey reason. Posterity's a crap shoot......Does anyone young listen to Elvis or, for that matter, the Beatles? Perhaps Justin Bieber will record a cover version of Yellow Submarine and rekindle interest in their work.