Saturday, July 12, 2014

The touchless instrument

January 18. 2014 10:35PM

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If you were on “Jeopardy” and the category was musical instruments and the answer was something about a zither-like creation first crafted in ancient China, the question might very well be, “What is a guzheng?”

Plucking the strings of her intricately designed, wooden guzheng on a recent Friday evening, Dr. Kathy Wang explained the origins of the instrument date back some 3,000 years.

As guests listened to her music during a reception at Mainstreet Galleries in Kingston, some of them remarked on how well it blended with the sounds of a much more modern instrument, the theremin Jason Smeltzer of Scranton was playing.

In contrast to Wang’s traditional strings, Smeltzer’s theremin seemed so high-tech as to be otherworldly because he was able to play it without touching it.

“Oh, my kids are going to love this,” Mary Jane Shinko of Wilkes-Barre said as she used her phone to record Smeltzer manipulating his hands between the instrument’s two antennae to perform the theme to the 1960s TV show “Star Trek.”

“This one controls the volume,” Smeltzer said, pointing to one antenna. “And this one controls the pitch.”

“It works kind of like a burglar alarm,” he said.

The somewhat eerie sounds of the theremin did appear in the original “Star Trek” theme song as well as in several science-fiction movies of the 1950s, Smeltzer said. So it’s not really a modern miracle of an instrument.

Leon Theremin developed what was then his newfangled invention back in 1920s Russia — that tidbit of information also might show up on “Jeopardy” someday — and Smeltzer uses his theremin to play classical music and jazz, to entertain folks at First Night Scranton and, as he demonstrated at Mainstreet Galleries, to take requests.

“Do you know the muffin man, the muffin man, the muffin man?” several bystanders sang along as he played that child’s tune.

Soon it was time for the highlight of the evening, a dramatic reading by Robert A. Anderson of West Wyoming from his book, “The Cat, The Sun and The Mirror.” Anderson donned a fedora, the better to resemble the title-character cat, who is a detective, and his wife, Rose Marie Wright, held up illustrations from the book, which had been done by artist Hannah Way Rawe.

While local choreographer Wendy Weir Henry and a group of children voiced other roles from story, Wang’s fingers moved gracefully over the strings of the guzheng, and Smeltzer’s fingers moved with equal fluidity, seeming to pluck the air.


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