Theremins. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em. On the one hand, they're just ridiculously difficult to play in a musical way. On the other, as far as crazy noisemakers go, their cool-quotient is off the charts. I've noticed Theremins have become nearly standard equipment in the hipper project studios lately. Professor Television has designed an interesting variant of the Theremin that employs a light sensor instead of an antenna. To play it, you move your hand up and down over the light sensor, lowering the pitch by blocking light and raising it by allowing more light to reach it. The good Professor explains that this design prevents the instrument from picking up radio interference.
It's a handy size-about the size and shape of a large effects pedal. It runs on a 9-vold battery or wall wart. And it has a built-in speaker which, although it has a very limited frequency response, provides some nice instant gratification. The top of the device has control knobs for volume, pitch (which sort of "tunes in" the range depending on available light), LFO depth and rate. A power switch, square/triangular wave switch, LFO rate LED and the dime-sized light sensor round out the top panel. There's a 1/4'' audio output jack on the side panel.
When it comes to playing Theremins, I'm certainly no Clara Rockmore. And the Photo- Theremin certainly wasn't any easier for me to play than a conventional one. I found the range was pretty small, necessitating tiny movements of my fingers to play musical intervals. On the other hand, the chaos factor is way cooler than on a conventional Theremin. The switchable square/triangular wave LFO with adjustable speed can create some excellent "percolating spaceship" effects. You can play the thing by shining a flashlight or laser pointer at it, or by "playing" the room's light dimmer. I didn't have a strobe light handy, but I can only imagine the craziness induced by one. And don't forget constantly-changing stage lights-could be just the thing your noise band needs.
The Photo-Theremin sounds great-very deep and rich. At less than a third the price of a conventional Theremin, the Photo-Theremin is perfect for the budget-minded sonic experimenter. ($99.95 direct, $7.95 for optional AC adapter; www.professortelevision.com)