A Giant Theremin Is Watching You Down Under

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Here's a travel tip: If you find yourself in Melbourne, Australia, with time on your hands, check out the Giant Theremin. The 23-foot-tall electronic musical instrument sits on a pedestrian walkway near the Yarra River. As people pass by — or dance or jump in front of the theremin — it tracks the motion and creates sounds. Judging by YouTube videos, a lot of people are taking part in this musical public art project.

The original theremin was created in the early years of the 20th century by Leon Theremin. It's usually much smaller than the model in Melbourne — about the size of a mini-fridge. You play it without touching it, by simply moving your hands in the air to manipulate an electromagnetic field.

Nontraditional Theremin

The instrument — or installation, one might say — is the work of artist Robin Fox. The city of Melbourne approached him about a year ago to build it. As Fox explains, the Giant Theremin borrows the spirit of the original, but not its exact technology.

"It doesn't work like a traditional theremin, because I didn't want to microwave people walking by with great washes of electromagnetic fields," Fox says in an interview with All Things Considered host Robert Siegel. "Instead, it works with a camera-tracking system, but my feeling about that is if Leon Theremin was alive today, he'd completely approve of that strategy."

The camera system, Fox says, can track up to eight people at a time.

"So in the same way you'd put your hand close to the pitch antenna on the theremin, if you walk from side to side in front of this instrument, it will change the pitch of a tone," Fox says. "If you approach the instrument, you can make the tone louder; if you run away from it, you can make the tone softer."

The supersize theremin was programmed to emit not only tones but also some prerecorded musical sounds.

"So you have people playing a classic theremin tone, but then someone will cut across that with a xylophone riff," Fox says. "And then you sort of get them tuning that together and finding the position when they have a complementary or harmonic sense."

The city of Melbourne spent some $92,000 to build the theremin. Was it worth the money? Here's what we heard from the project manager, Ariel Valent.

"I can tell by the look on some people's faces that they think it is weird," Valent wrote via email. "However, the response so far has been overwhelmingly positive. Kids, in particular, are loving it."

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