The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

October 29, 2012

Play us a tune, you’re the theremin man

By Jeffrey Allen Federowicz
For The Daily Item

LEWISBURG —  “Mary Poppins Goes to Mars.”

According to Rob Schwimmer, that is the title a Disney film would need to be called if his eclectic and out-of-this-world style of music would be used on the soundtrack.

No sooner does the former Bloomsburg resident say the imaginary film title than he lets out a wild and unambiguous laugh.

Then again, Schwimmer seems to laugh a lot in — and at — life. And he has every right to do just that.

A gifted pianist, the New York City-based Schwimmer is also an in-demand,  modern day Renaissance music man who masterly plays a collection of kooky instruments that often look and sound as if they were a science project.

Among his instruments of choice are the continuum and the theremin, which was invented in the early 1920s, making it one of the earliest electronic instruments.

“These instruments are certainly not something you hear every day and they are also some of the hardest instruments to play, at least if you want to play them in tune,” Schwimmer said during a recent phone interview which found him at home and juggling several over-scheduled media interviews.

So what is the continuum and how is it played?

According to Schwimmer, the instrument is something one learns to play basically through trial and error since the instrument is so unique.

“I didn’t come home from school one day and tell my dad, who was a professor at Bloomsburg University, I wanted to play the continuum,” he said. “I saw it used in a play in New York and eventually was able to find a used one that cost me more to ship and get repaired than it was to buy.”

The theremin is an instrument that uses magnetic fields to play various tones and control volume and is often used to make eerie sounds. Think sci-fi movies.

Depending on whom you ask, the continuum, is a strange breed of instrument that is like a keyboard or fretboard with added possibilities by pressing different points along the length to produce different notes.

“Playing both these instruments takes a lot of control,” Schwimmer said. “If you even breathe too hard it will mess everything up. So it’s not something you play if you have a bad cold and cough.”

The in-demand music maker has been busy performing at numerous concerts, recordings and just days ago, performing with Paul Simon, one half of Simon and Garfunkel, an act he has toured with numerous times.

Schwimmer, who is considered one of the few theremin virtuosos in the world, has appeared with The Little Orchestra at Lincoln Center, with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra and of course with Simon and Garfunkel and on such record labels as CBS/Sony, Warner Brothers, Toshiba/ EMI and Manhattan/Blue Note.

His hauntingly strange sounds echo through film and TV productions for Dreamworks, Universal Pictures, TriStar Pictures,  HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, CBS,  NBC, ABC, Discovery, Lifetime and Nickelodeon.

“My work keeps me very busy and I love it,” he said. “And I love the challenge of playing these instruments and seeing the reaction the people in the audience have. If you have a difficult time talking to people or are shy, start playing one of these instruments and you’ll never have that problem again. People are drawn to both of them and always have a ton of questions to ask.”

Schwimmer has also composed the score for 2008 Oscar winner “Freeheld” in the Documentary Short category as well as Oscar winner “Dear Diary” in the Live Action Short in 1996.

Over the years he’s performed at such noted venues as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Tokyo Dome and The Blue Note.

A personal high-water mark for Schwimmer was performing on both keyboards, theremin and vocals with Simon and Garfunkel at the Rock & Rock Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert at Madison Square Garden as well as their New Zealand, Australia and Japan, North American and European tours.

Schwimmer’s musical talents have been lauded in The New York Times, The New York and countless print and TV interviews.

His talents have also landed him on stage or performing with such artists as Wayne Shorter, Stevie Wonder, Bobby McFerrin, Willie Nelson, Chaka Khan, Laurie Anderson, Bette Midler, Queen Latifah, T-Bone Walker, Annette Peacock, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marshall Brickman, Josh Groban, Burt Bacharach and Sammy Davis Jr. among others.

And now he’s headed back to the Susquehanna Valley for a few days, to play a little music and reconnect with his local roots.

“I still have a house in Bloomsburg and enjoy getting away from the city and heading back (to this area) every now and then. It’s nice to have a break and visit some of the places I use to hang out at when I was in high school and see some old friends,” he said. “The show at Bucknell will be most enjoyable and give people in the area a chance to hear some very different instruments. Plus, I heard the show is free. Free. What do you have to lose?”