By JIM FUSILLI
Since 1928, when the Russian Léon Theremin received a U.S. patent for an apparatus "embodying an electrical vibrating system," the theremin, his electronic instrument that's played without being touched, has become associated in film soundtracks with arrivals from outer space or hair-tugging psychotics. In rock and pop, the theremin may add a touch of the avant-garde. To the inventor Robert Moog, the instrument is where electronic music began.
With virtuosity and no small application of wit, the New York Theremin Society seeks to elevate the instrument to the status its members believe it deserves. At a show at Joe's Pub in mid-December, five thereminists performed a range of material—including ambient and techno music, classical compositions by Alexander Scriabin and Richard Wagner, and pop by the Beatles, Enya, and Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern. During the concert, the instrument's bizarre nature was often secondary to its beauty and versatility.
Over borscht at a restaurant on the Lower East Side a few days before the show, Dorit Chrysler and Rob Schwimmer, the society's drivers, spoke of the theremin with affection and bemusement.
"I thought it was the kookiest, most expressive thing," said Ms. Chrysler, age 40, remembering her initial exposure to the instrument. "The only thing comparable is the voice. But the theremin is an extension of the body."
Mr. Schwimmer, 58, was familiar with its sound, but he hadn't seen it played until the late 1980s, when a clip of Clara Rockmore (1911-1998), perhaps the instrument's greatest virtuoso, ran on television. "I remember trying to reconcile the physical motions with the sound. I really didn't know which hand was doing what."
A theremin player manipulates the electromagnetic fields around two antennae—one of which controls pitch, the other volume. The tiniest movement affects the sound, more often than not to a dissatisfying end. To create the sonic impression of a soaring spaceship or a laser beam is fairly simple. To play George Harrison's "Within You Without You," as Mr. Schwimmer did at Joe's Pub, isn't. Yet the theremin appeals to amateur musicians who think it's easy to play.
"Evidently, the dropout rate is phenomenal," Mr. Schwimmer said.
Ms. Chrysler added: "It's easy to play bad. When people hear people who can't play, it's not so pleasant." But, she said, "I think it's great that people try it."
A New York native, Mr. Schwimmer is a composer and pianist who's worked with Antonio Carlos Jobim, Willie Nelson, Wayne Shorter, Stevie Wonder and many others; while touring with Simon and Garfunkel, he convinced the duet to let him play on theremin the part in "The Boxer" rendered originally on a piccolo trumpet. Ms. Chrysler, who was born in Graz, Austria, is a multi-instrumentalist who's played the theremin at venues as varied as CBGB, the Konzerthaus in Vienna and a town square in Siberia. She's developing a reputation in electronic-music circles: She toured with Trentemøller, who remixed "Come On Home," a track from her 2011 album, "Sea of Negligence" (Prurience Factory).
The New York Theremin Society "is very open and nonexclusive," Ms. Chrysler said. If you can play well, you can join. "Community is important in an instrument that's not as well known as it should be," she added.
At the Joe's Pub concert, Ms. Chrysler and Mr. Schwimmer performed two songs together, a vampy cocktail number and a lovely version of the Beatles' "If I Fell." On her own, Ms. Chrysler sang and played over electronic beats, coming across as a futuristic Lotte Lenya as well as a disciplined technician and superb musician. Mr. Schwimmer punctuated his performance with glib commentary, but his moving reading of Wagner's "Träume" to a prerecorded solo piano suggested a reassessment of the instrument's potential. Others excelled as well: Over electronic beats by her musical partner Tigerforest, Améthyste sang and played pleasing voicelike lines on the theremin, bending notes with care. Cornelius Loy gave the evening's most melodramatic, and ultimately heartening, performance, in which he coaxed both melodic and violent sounds out of his theremin, played over big, textured electronic tracks. Mr. Loy, who was dressed in black leather, including gloves, created with his music a sense of chaos and domination, of a somber mood exploded by rage.
By its end, the evening proved what Ms. Chrysler had claimed over lunch: "A theremin is a cool contemporary instrument. It's not only retro and classical; it's cool and now."
A version of this article appeared January 2, 2013, on page D5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: An Instrument Comes Into Its Own.