St. Pierre makes music as if by magic

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A musical instrument that can be played without being touched made its debut recently at the gazebo on the Bethel Common.

The instrument, owned by Conni St. Pierre of Bethel, is called a theremin. It is one of the first music synthesizers invented.

The electronic instrument is controlled by two metal antennae that sense the relative position of the musician’s hands.

One hand controls the frequency of the sound through oscillators, while the other hand controls the volume (amplitude). The musician never touches the instrument.

It sounds a little like something out of science fiction, and in a way it is. The instrument was used to generate background music for the 1951 science fiction movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” as well as for the 1960s TV show “Dark Shadows,” Conni said.

The theremin was patented in 1928 by Russian physicist Leon Theremin, who at the time was working in energy field theory and researching proximity sensors.

“We watched a documentary about him, and that’s what prompted us to get one,” Conni said.

She and her husband, Ted, own The Outlook recording studio in Bethel.

Conni has been working with the instrument for 13 years. “I can play it and play it in tune, but I haven’t mastered it,” she said.

She played the theremin recently at one of the regular Sunday afternoon concerts on the Bethel Common, a performance that was billed as featuring two instruments that may never have been seen live in the region.

The other instrument was the shakulute, which combines the mouthpiece of a Japanese flute with a western transverse flute.

Conni also owns a shakuhachi flute, the Zen meditation flute from which the mouthpiece is derived. It has just five holes and can only be played in one key. Combining the mouthpiece with a western flute allows more range, she said.

Conni has played flute since she was 11, but the shakuhachi was a real challenge when she first got it.

“It took me three days to get a sound out of it,” she said. “The way you breathe totally affects it. You have to be calm.”

She got the modified shakulute after doing a fundraiser through the “Kickstarter” website.

Although she didn’t initially raise enough funds to buy one at the cost she expected, she said, “I did, however, get a call from someone who saw the Kickstarter who had a used shakulute for sale. Coincidentally, for the amount that had been pledged in the Kickstarter.“

Connie has made four recordings with the instrument. They are part of a biofeedback video game known as “Zen Journey.”

Her music plays in the background as users interact with soothing programs designed to help them relax.

In addition to the theremin and lutes, Conni also plays other unusual instruments. “I have been trying to learn sitar for several years,” she said. “I play Native American flutes, alto flute, Chinese jade dizi flute, Egyptian argul, keyboards, clavinet and a variety of World percussion. I do love learning new instruments.”

St. Pierre plays the theremin at the gazebo on the Bethel Common
St. Pierre plays the theremin at the gazebo on the Bethel Common

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