June 11, 2007

Whistling towards the graveyard

Charles Addams, the great New Yorker cartoonist whose lugubrious turn of mind suggested an important source for a death fantasy, wrote (without sending an illustration) as follows: "I am hoping to break into a thousand tiny pieces while attending a theremin concert in Malone, N.Y., in mid January."

I was very excited by this, but not knowing what a "theremin" was, I had to reach Mr. Addams on the phone to ask. I said I was embarrassed not to know; someone had assured me that a theremin was a kind of "Eastern" religion, and the "cracking into a thousand pieces" was the consequence of being peered at by a waiflike holy man enveloped in a white shroud.

"No, no, no," said Mr. Addams. "Heavens no. A theremin is a musical instrument... a sort of electrical coil which gives off a humming sound."


"It works by the distance you hold your hand to it. The closer you put your hand," Mr. Addams went on, "the higher the tone, and right up close you can get a terrific vibrational shriek. It's a bona fide musical instrument and by making the proper hocus-pocus gestures you can get Beethoven's Fifth out of it, or anything else."

I said I was relieved to know that he didn't want to be extinguished by a guru's glance, and he said, "No, no, no, no," again. "A theremin. A theremin." He said that he had thoroughly enjoyed working out the problem. "A real challenge," he said.

—George Plimpton, Shadow Box

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