Sometimes a direction in life is determined by, well, weird stuff.
Years ago Kip Rosser, a stage director and musician who happens to be obsessed with a fascinating, peculiar electronic musical instrument known as the theremin, used to get a catalog from WFMU-FM (91.1), the independent, freeform station out of East Orange. The catalog was called “Weird Stuff.”
“One of the items in the catalog was a theremin kit,” says Rosser. “You had to get this kit and build the thing yourself. I’d never done any electronic projects prior to this. But I sent away for it. It was very cheap, and I figured that if I couldn’t build it, I wouldn’t be out very much cash. And I did it. A friend gave me some coaching as to how to do this. It took me about three days, and it worked.”
He eventually got frustrated, however, because the instrument he had built from the kit was not sensitive enough to play the music he heard in his head. “So I decided to give myself a combination birthday/Father’s Day present. I bought one of the moog theremins, and it was unbelievable. It was like having to learn the instrument all over again. It was so much more sensitive and so much more precise.”
Now Rosser, a virtuoso of the theremin who owns seven of the instruments and who will be releasing a new CD this month, spends much of his personal and professional life sharing his love of the instrument. “I play all kinds of music. I play classical, jazz, rock, whatever. I did a show at a school a few days ago, and a fourth-grader asked me to play ‘Smoke on the Water.’”
Rosser will be performing Saturday, March 12, at the New Jersey Festival of Electronic Arts at Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton. He will collaborate with fellow theremin expert John Hoge, whose specialty is classical music, specifically Baroque music.
Though the music of the theremin sounds futuristic and otherworldly, the instrument — the “grandmother” of all electronic instruments, says Rosser — is almost 100 years old. The Russian physicist, engineer, and electronics pioneer Leon Theremin created the instrument in 1917 and even demonstrated it to Vladimir Lenin, who liked it so much he learned to play the instrument. When Theremin took the instrument out of Russia, throughout the world, the RCA Company here in New Jersey bought the rights to it. To make sound with the theremin, the musician stands in front of the instrument and moves his or her hands back and forth near two metal antennas, the distance from the antennas determining pitch and volume.
The theremin, with its sustained notes high register, and easily bent timbres, was the instrument that produced many of the eerie electronic sounds found in the science fiction movies of the 1950s and ’60s. Rosser loves to point out that the instrument is the only one that is played without ever being touched.
Rosser’s relationship with the theremin has developed steadfastly over the past 14 years. A trained theater director and musician who lives with his wife in Morrisville, PA, Rosser splits his time between freelance work as a copywriter and graphic designer and his performing, lecturing, and composing for the theremin. “I would love to make my living doing this,” he says.
Rosser was a full-time graphic designer until two years ago, when he was laid off from his full-time job. Since then, he has tried to devote as much energy as he can to the instrument. “I decided to ramp up the theremin as much as I can, and as a result, I have been able to do quite a bit more.”
Rosser was born in New York City but moved up and down the East Coast as a youth. His father was an insurance salesman, but his passion was for fine arts. The elder Rosser spent most of his time painting when he was not working. Rosser’s mother, as well, was artistic. A stay-at-home mom to Rosser, his brother, and two sisters, she passed on her passion for Broadway and musical theater to her son.
Rosser spent his later formative years in Glastonbury, Connecticut. Encouraged by his mom, he had played piano since childhood, “but not very well,” says Rosser. “By then, the interest in music had developed into the interest in theater. I had started by writing musical comedies in ninth grade, and then I went into nonmusical theater. “
Rosser studied acting and directing at Ithaca College in New York state. After graduating in 1975, he earned a master’s degree in theatrical directing in 1977 at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. Though he continued to play music, at least when he composed, he stopped doing that altogether when he left Northwestern.
“I did everything I could to direct as many shows as possible,” he says. Rosser went back to New York and worked in the business, but it never worked out to his satisfaction. “For whatever reason, whatever choices that could have been made, whatever opportunities that could have been had, or contacts that could have been made, it never materialized as a career, even though I continued to do it until about three years ago. When you decide to go into theater, it’s a spin of the wheel. There’s no telling why the career never happened in a big way.”
Rosser has been able to incorporate all of his knowledge, history, triumphs, and sadness into his theremin performances. “I found out that as I played and performed with the theremin, I was able to bring together a lot of the theatrical training I had into my concert performances. I could write my own material, I could stage it however I wanted to satisfy the writer and director, and I could use that to bring a different type of musical entertainment to the general public, most of whom have never seen it before.”
In 2009 Rosser was selected to be a member of Musicopia, a Pennsylvania organization that provides musicians of all types for school master classes, performances, and assemblies. “I do age-appropriate presentations for school audiences that range from kindergarten to 8th grade,” he says. He has given four of these presentations so far and is hoping to be an artist-in-residence at one school for eight weeks later this year.
He also occasionally plays the theremin in the New York subways. There are logistical challenges (loud noise, lots of people, weird stuff in general), to be sure. “I play a battery-powered theremin with a battery-powered amplifier,” he says. “But people react on the subway the same way as they react anywhere else. They’re usually stunned, filled with disbelief at first, but immediately, everyone returns into a little kid. One of the reasons I enjoy playing this (instrument) is the immediate effect it has on everyone, regardless of age. There is a genuine quality to the music, the sight of someone waving their hands in the air and producing sound, that just disarms everyone immediately, and it becomes this object of wonder. It works every single time.”
The theremin also has an emotional impact on Rosser, as the father of two grown sons, and husband to Pam, a midwife. “It does a great deal for me, actually,” says Rosser. “All of the years I spent not practicing the piano and not practicing the clarinet were my early introduction to music. Once I hit grad school, I was unable to pursue music anymore. But 14 years ago, once I bought that first theremin, I knew it was the instrument for me. I have never wanted to do anything more than just practice and play. It has been amazing for me to work on. It has always been a challenge, very temperamental, and changing all the time. The emotional challenge for me has been to always work toward creating music that sounds the way music should sound.”
New Jersey Festival of Electronic Arts, Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. Saturday, March 12, 1 to 8 p.m. Live electronic music, dancers concert, and interactive exhibits. Music performers include Kip Rosser, Chuck van Zyl, Azimuth Visuals, Up Beat Manifest, and Joo Won Park. Workshops, discussion groups, and demonstrations. Free with park admission. Rain or shine but snow/ice postpones event to March 13. Visit www.njfea.com for more information. 609-586-0616 or www.groundsforsculpture.org.