Interview: The Telemin – musical instrument classic, digital, hybrid?

by Jan-Alexander Krause

Annika Hachmeister and Frieder Behrens demonstrate with the Telemin that a simple telescopic rod, a few sensors and a computer can be used to create an innovative musical instrument. This approach allows for new performative concepts as well as insights into digital sound design. As an interface, the Telemin offers musicians* the opportunity to overcome barriers to digital instruments and gain access to interpretative approaches.

A driving pulse moves through drone-like sound surfaces, with sounds floating in between, reminiscent of sirens – the presentation of the Telemin in the seminar Klang, Raum, Bewegung (Sound, Space, Movement) becomes an engaging sound experience. A total of three independent software synthesizers can be heard, which are played together via the Telemin as a hardware interface. The coupling of analogue motion sequences and digital sound synthesis thus results in an instrument with a multi-layered sound, allowing new, unconventional gestures within the interaction between human and digital instrument. And yet the Telemin itself – if its sensors did not flash so mysteriously – could hardly be more inconspicuous. It mainly consists of a simple telescopic rod equipped with sensors in its various components. These sensors record tilt and distance as quantitative measurements and gather control data for the synthesizers in this way.

Telemin Performance: Frieder Behrens on 28.01.2020 within the seminar Klang, Raum, Bewegung (Sound, Space, Movement)

The Telemin is named after a combination of the words ‘telescope’ and ‘theremin’, explains Frieder Behrens: ” The former refers to the rod’s extension and rotation functions. The second part of the word is a reference to the instrument invented by Leon Theremin in 1920, which can also be played by body movements and is an important precursor for the later invention of synthesizers.

For Frieder Behrens, the Telemin is a continuation of the Tonangel. In 2018 he already designed a similar instrument made of a fishing rod, which can be used to play fast, unisonous sequences of notes. With the Telemin, the focus is now less on the notes: “The sound-aesthetic vision was to create an instrument that, through gentle movements, modulates synthetic sounds in a sensitive and well-controlled manner. The results are “drone- or noise-like sound surfaces that captivate less through their rhythmic and harmonic structures, but rather through the modulation of the synthetic sound.

Annika Hachmeister was not only involved in designing the Telemin, but also made the instrument her Lehrforschungsprojekt (an educational research project). In her research, she illuminates the conception of classical and digital instruments and is particularly interested in their performative effect on an audience which not only listens to the instrument, but also observes it visually. On the visual level, the performative character recedes into the background, especially in the case of digital musical instruments, when primarily only buttons are turned and faders are pushed. In contrast, instruments such as the Telemin are meant to facilitate comprehension of the performance and offer the artist the opportunity to respond to the instrument in an expressive way in order to become one with it while playing.

In a written interview with the two developers, we talked about the distinction between classic and digital instruments again and speculated about their common future using the Telemin as an example.


To start with: Do you have any musical backgrounds and have these possibly inspired and contributed to the conception of the Telemin?

FB: I have been working with Ableton for about 10 years. I used to make jazz music, which was reflected in the Telemin’s predecessor, the Tonangel. In the conception of the Telemin, it was more the interest in electronic music that prevailed.

AH: My musical background is more in classical music and the Telemin made it easier for me to understand the digital creation of sound and music. That’s why I find the intersection of musical instrument, technology and creative work very fascinating.

What makes a musical instrument a musical instrument – or rather what components does an instrument consist of in the classical sense?

AH: Musical instruments are very versatile and diverse. According to the Instrument Building Discourse, we can say that classical musical instruments are those instruments that are held by a person and played by physical interaction of their specific characteristics.
A classical musical instrument usually consists of three units: a control unit (e.g. the bow of a violin), a sound generator (the body), and a connection (bridge) between the two. In an acoustic instrument, the playable surface (interface) is simultaneously attached to the Sound Generator and the connection between the way the instrument is played (controlled by gestures) and the resulting sound is static.

What is different about a digital musical instrument like Telemin – what is the difference between digital and non-digital instruments?

AH: With Telemin, the sound production is not fundamentally bound to certain gestures, we have intentionally defined and programmed them that way. Also, the sound generator is not the same physical object as the control unit. The Telemin’s telescopic rod and the sensors attached to it are digitally connected to the interface on a computer.

What exactly is the hardware of the telemins composed of and which software components are controlled by it?

FB: The Telemin consists of a multi-part telescopic rod that can be extended. It is equipped with a total of five sensors, which mainly measure inclinations to the earth’s axis. The individual telescopic elements, each equipped with a sensor, can be rotated independently of each other. This results in a large number of movements that can be detected by the sensors.
The data generated by the sensors is sent wirelessly to a receiver, which passes it on to the computer via USB. The data received there is provided via the message protocol format Open Sound Control (OSC). With a patch for Max for Live written by Prof. Rolf Großmann, the OSC data can be implemented in Ableton Live and then assigned to parameters.
With the data generated by movements, a total of three voices of software synthesizers can be modulated. By tilting the entire bar, rotating individual telescope elements, and approaching and removing a hand, parameters such as volume, pitch, and accentuation of the individual synthesizer voices can be controlled.

Interface and sound generation of the DMI are only connected with each other through mapping. What came first in Telemin, sound or interface – and how did one find the other?

FB: In this case, in practice, the interface was clearly there first. Although the search for a suitable telescopic rod turned out to be a bit cumbersome at first (according to the manufacturer, the rod that was finally purchased was actually intended to pick up metal parts from the ground with the help of the magnet attached to the tip), the subsequent attachment of the hardware was actually quite straightforward – the idea of equipping a telescopic rod with sensors had already been in a previous project. Then the mapping began, which was much more labor-intensive.
In theory, however, the two were thought of together from the very beginning. Already when the telescopic rods were selected, there were ideas about the characteristics they should have with regard to their later playability. Thus, the individual elements of the rod – in contrast to its predecessor project – are quite rigid. They can be turned into one position and remain in this position by themselves. The sound-aesthetic vision was to create an instrument that modulates synthetic sounds sensitively and well-controlled through careful movements. The tonal reactions to the corresponding movements of the stick should be in a relationship that is comprehensible to both the player and the listener.

Can there even be something like a fixed sound concept for a digital instrument interface – or is the interface here much more a universal controller?

FB: The configuration consisting of rod, sensors and subsequent processing of the resulting data offers many options. From this perspective, the Telemin in its current form exploits only a fraction of the sonic possibilities. The artistic challenge is to assign the generated data in Ableton in a meaningful and aesthetic way. In this respect, I do not think that there has to be a “fixed sound concept” for such an interface, although it would certainly be possible to roughly classify which sound concepts would be more suitable for the movement possibilities of the rod and which would not.

Were performative qualities included in the conception of the telemine? Live performances do not only live from the sound and composition of a piece of music, but also from the expression of the musicians on a visual level.

AH: Improving the live performance experience was one of our key goals in developing the Telemins. Whether it can be played sitting or standing is an important question. Starting and stopping the game is also part of the performance and works with the Telemin without pressing a “Start” button. This makes it more similar to classical instruments and sets it apart from other DJ performances.

FB: No, the possibilities of the performance were not really present at first, at least not for me. But the presentation of the telemin showed that this is a very exciting point. During the performance, many commentators affirmed the question of whether the sonic results were comprehensible according to the movements, which I was very pleased about.

What do you think makes a good digital instrument?

AH: To me, a good digital instrument is characterized by its combination of technical application and creative sound production. Technology and art must come together in the instrument, because one does not work without the other. It has to generate curiosity, interaction and fun in the player as well as in the listener. For me personally, the performativity is especially important and the way the function of the instrument is communicated to its listeners.

FB: It must be coherent and inspiring in its configuration of hardware, software, interface and playability.

Common DMI interfaces are for example the MPC with velocity-sensitive pads or Midi keyboards with a keyboard. To what extent does Telemin suggest other aesthetic strategies in comparison? Does the telemin as an interface have an effect on the sound aesthetics of the music?

FB: I personally find a comparison to common DMIs useful for illustration purposes and for potential analysis of Telemin. The pad of an MPC, for example, is very well suited for creating metrically precise rhythms – which is not possible with Telemin at all. In this respect, the nature and playability of the interface clearly have an impact on the sound aesthetics of the instrument. This is precisely the artistic challenge that exists after the hardware has been set up. The data generated by the Telemin is in some places not quite “voice-stable” – despite the fact that the stick is supposedly held still, the sensors generate fluctuating data. A circumstance that has to be taken into account when mapping the DMI – and where common interfaces might be at an advantage. Unlike a piano keyboard, however, the Telemin allows you to say goodbye to any 12-tone grid without any problems. In addition, individual voices can theoretically be operated on many more parameters than just pitch and velocity. These are all factors of the interface that must play a role in the development of sound aesthetics.

Will there be more interfaces with similar sensor technology and playability as the Telemin in the future?

FB: I hope so!

AH: In general, there will definitely be more digital musical instruments, because the technology required will be cheaper and more accessible, and therefore more artists will be using it. The MiniBee sensors we use are ideal for the design of sensor-based DMIs. I could imagine these instruments in the “normal” music world and not only in an innovative, academic context.

In the end: How much classical and how much digital instrument is in Telemin?

AH: I would say [in Telemin there is] more digital than classic. Since we don’t have a classical instrument as a template or direct comparison and the physical structure is so different from classical instruments, Telemin definitely belongs to the digital instruments.

FB: A difficult question. In the current configuration, for example, Telemin can only be used to play tonic, subdominant, and dominant as fundamental notes. At least harmonically, the Telemin perhaps corresponds to some classical (however one interprets the term now) ideas. Otherwise, the Telemin is digital through and through from the moment the sensors detect movement.
In an experiment, the data generated in Ableton was converted via MIDI into analog control voltages (CV) to address a modular synthesizer. A configuration whose sonic possibilities do not necessarily have to differ greatly from those of a digital sound generator. Nevertheless, the final processing or conversion of the digitally generated data into analog circuits that can address not only synthesizers would be an exciting conceptual perspective that would bring Telemin out of its very digital environment and into a more analog field.