James Coleman: Zuihitsu

The theremin is a unique instrument, wholly electronic yet requiring physical effort and gesture to be played, rather than mere knob twiddling or mouse clicking. It is also possibly the only instrument that is played without being touched, consisting as it does of a box and an antenna around which the performer waves his hand, producing a diverse range of timbres.

The trademark sound of the theremin is a kind of spooky wail, often employed in the soundtracks of horror and science fiction films as a reliable way of imparting fear or disquiet. This may seem a wholly appropriate and respectable use of the instrument, but it is clearly not enough for certain musicians, who have been determined to ‘extend’ its application into areas of experimental music practice.

In recent years, alt-rock chancers such as Blur, Sonic Boom and Portishead have all been observed adding the theremin’s trademark eerie whistle to their records. Without exception, this trend signifies creatively stunted artists making glib bids to add artistic credibility – what The Wire has felicitously identified as the It’s Really Experimental syndrome.

James Coleman would no doubt wish to distance himself from the names mentioned above. His music foregrounds the theremin, rather than using it merely to add interest. The Sedimental press release, meanwhile, claims that the label “releases original music made by artists devoted to their craft, without concern to trend”. Sadly, however, Coleman is part of the trend whether he likes it or not, and however serious he professes his engagement with the instrument to be. The dilettantes who came before him have irreversibly defined the terms with which any later musician can engage with the theremin.

This project is therefore doomed from the outset. It consists of fifteen short pieces, on which Coleman’s theremin is the only constant presence. He is variously joined by trumpet, cello, saxophone, percussion and voice, and on two tracks by an ‘experimental chamber music group’. Coleman claims to draw inspiration from AMM, among others, but there is little of that group’s restless creativity in these crabbed improvisations. Nor do he and his cohorts approach the instrumental dexterity of a Rowe or a Prevost.

The title ‘Zuihitsu’ translates as ‘miscellany’, and Coleman has deliberately chosen to articulate his vision in brief, spasmodic flurries. This decision is fatal. Instead of playing to the theremin’s strengths and utilising its singular tone to create other-worldly atmospheres, Coleman resolves to demonstrate the instrument’s avant garde capabilities through a barrage of blips, flips and skips that vie for bloodlessness and inconsequentiality.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 11, 2003)