Clara 2.0 (the polite robot thereminist)
Named in honour of the original theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore, Clara 2.0 is a robot doll who can play the theremin live. I call her the ‘polite robot thereminist’ as she listens to a line from another player and moves her dolly arm to bring her own theremin in perfect tune. Well, that’s the theory… In this jamming session, Clara 2.0 is copying a line from an old Roland SH-2 synth (which I play silently), then the line from my own theremin. When the two theremins play together, things seem quite chaotic as Clara tries to follow me while I try to lock into Clara’s line. I created Clara 2.0 as a more theatrical alternative to the loop pedal. Clara can harmonise in thirds or other intervals, as well as play in unison. She does put in the occasional appearance at live gigs although she can be temperamental, unless there’s plenty of set-up time. I’m currently experimenting with ways to make her work more reliably out-of-the-box, so I can take her on the road more often.
The uncanny valley
Although I haven’t offered her up for academic scrutiny, I do feel Clara 2.0 supports Mori’s ‘uncanny valley’ hypothesis (1970). I appreciate the uncanny valley is a contentious theory that needs further research. However, when I present Clara 2.0 in live performances, I find she is sufficiently human-like to unsettle the audience, in line with Mori’s theory. The exposed mechanical and electronic parts, on her convincingly baby-like frame, seem to augment viewers’ feelings of unease. People are particularly uneasy when they see Clara 2.0 in purposeful motion (as Mori’s theory predicts). Clara 2.0 has helped me to explore these issues of uncanniness and to experiment with an audience’s empathy towards inanimate objects.
No mouse – no midi
As a theremin-player, I have an affinity for fluid tuning and a natural antipathy towards midi, the musical interfacing protocol that describes pitch using discretely varying numbers. I’m also disinclined to watch live musical performances that use only a laptop, keyboard and mouse. Compared to a theremin, the keyboard and mouse create an impoverished interface, one that can’t offer the fine gestural, expressive control that is so valuable to a live performer. Clara 2.0 offers me a more theatrical, expressive alternative to the mouse – especially when I ask her to play back copies of my own theremin playing.
You’ll notice that Clara 2.0 has a whisker of metal on the end of her whisk. This tends to vibrate when she’s playing, giving her sound a pleasing Rockmoresque vibrato.
Thanks to everyone at Dorkbot London and the Hands off Festival, 2007, for their encouragement and useful tips after viewing some early outings of Clara 2.0. In particular, I’d like to thank theremin maker Jake Rothman for his extremely useful electrical advice (Clara’s insides are now lined with silver foil) and Gordon Charlton, whose virtuosic egg whisk numbers inspired Clara’s current look. Thanks also to Emmet Spier for screwing her arms on better and taking the photos on this page, Mike Blow for suggesting I try out this classic tune and Colin Uttley for playing the bass riff. With apologies to the great Roy Budd, composer of the jaw-droppingly gorgeous Get Carter theme.