Theremin Quest: Pillsbury’s Electric Biscuit Blues

I was playing “Sí Beag, Sí Mór” this morning on my Theremini. The melody, written for the harp by Turlough O’Carolan, always stirs something in my heart. Turlough was an Irish harpist who used his composition skills to pay debts and honor is patrons. To a handicapped musician like me, Turlough is a hero.

“Sí Beag, Sí Mór” is an interesting melody in that it is childishly simple. I think that is the key. There is something about the tune that draws out the best in a musician. The slow pace. The lack of complexity. The flow of the melody. It leaves so much room between the notes that it takes the musician to a place where there is nowhere to hide.

A glimpse of my workspace.

The song is in 3/4 time. Three beats to a measure. Count the beats as quarter notes, with an accent on the first. One, two, three. One, two, three.

The notes were easy to find with the Theremini set to Ionian mode. Once I had the sound, I turned off pitch correction and set the rest of the instrument to classic theremin mode. Without the assistive technology, it was harder to find the notes. I got it under control after a few tries.

I need help with my handicap now. Likewise, I also need to develop my skills for the future when my hearing aids are working. Balance is everything.

I was doing okay until I started getting hung up on my mistakes.

If you want to understand music, put your hand under a stream of water. Water has no intention. Gravity and your plumbing’s water pressure dictate that the water falls. When you place your hand into the stream, the water will flow over it in all directions and continue on its journey.

Music is the same. Rhythm flows and carries the notes along. If you hesitate and fall out of rhythm, the music keeps on flowing, and you become lost. Since I am human and as such fallible, I can never practice to the point where there are no mistakes. Instead, I try to ignore the mistakes. Flow past them. Like water.

When I do that in front of an audience, nine times out of ten they never notice the little mistake in my big river of music.

So, when I started getting frustrated with one of the big jumps in the melody of Sí Beag, Sí Mór, I turned off my theremin.

I was making a massive mistake, and I needed to meditate.

I learned to meditate when I was studying karate. The people who taught me to meditate wanted me to be calm in a fight. There was no visualization or mindfulness. It was training until the desired responses were instinctive. Like Pavlov, only kicking people in the face instead of drooling.

I try not to fight anymore, so to meditate, I bake. Bundt-fu.

Getting away from the theremin for a break, I walked into the kitchen. I turned on the oven to five hundred degrees.

While the oven was getting hot, I wiped down the counter and got out my favorite mixing bowl. Then a bag of self-rising flour, some unsalted butter and a jug of buttermilk. I measure out two cups of flour into the bowl, dust the countertop a bit and then put away the flour.

Cut a quarter cup of butter into the flour, then mix is about three quarters of a cup of buttermilk. This is where things begin to turn into art because you have to learn the feel of the dough. Not too wet and not too dry. Dump the batter into the floured countertop and bring it together. Do not knead it too much.

Bread dough needs to be rubbery, so we work the dough to build gluten. This allows the gas created by the yeast to become trapped, like little balloons, and make the bread rise.

Biscuits are different. Baking powder in the self-rising flour reacts to the acidic buttermilk and leavens the dough. We only need enough gluten to hold the biscuit together, so we handle it as little as possible.

Always acclimate yourself to the process. Music, baking, karate, writing, travel or even romance, the journey should be just as pleasurable as the destination.

I love rolling pins, but biscuits do not. Flatten the dough with your hands and fold. Repeat five times. Cut with a biscuit cutter. Bake 10 minutes.

Clean the kitchen and put things away while you are waiting.

When baked, the tops of your biscuits should be golden brown. Turn off the oven, baste the tops with butter and leave in the oven for another minute or so to crisp up.

Here is where things get tricky. To make this simple recipe a meditation, I had to bake truckloads of biscuits.

I mean truckloads. To the point where my family thought I was going crazy — but repetition is the key.

By working the recipe over and over, I am now able to perform the task without much conscious thought. My mind is comfortable with the variables of biscuit baking to the point that it checks out for lunch as I am working. That moment, when my noisy mind goes on a siesta, is when I can think clearly.

All training, in every field, is about boring the dumb mind enough for the smart mind to take over the wheel.

Your unconscious mind (smart brain) is capable of anything.

Your conscious mind (meet dumb brain) makes Ralph Wiggum look smarter than Stephen Hawking.

Smart brain can’t fight dumb brain head on. Stupidity is too powerful a force. You can, however, bore your mind until it gets out of your way.

Training turns the conscious mind into that worker you see on construction jobs. You know the one. Leaning on a shovel.

Once consciousness is out of the way, the useful member of the team can get stuff done.

Fifteen minutes after I started the house smelled like coffee and biscuits. Frustration was as forgotten as that television show about the Gieco Cavemen. The kitchen was clean. My head was clear.

As I noshed (the biscuits were delicious, by the way) the solution to my problem floated up in my mind like a magic 8-ball. Only, you know, something usable instead of, IT IS DECIDEDLY SO.

Instead of fighting for every note, I need to embrace the imprecise nature of the theremin. It’s an electric diddly bow, and I am a blues musician. Hell, I am the guy who developed bottleneck blues techniques for frailing banjo.

When I started playing slide, I made the mistake of being tentative. Like an art student with a massive sheet of paper trying to draw with painstaking detail in one corner, wasting ninety percent of the free space available.

I am doing the same thing with the theremin.

So, back to the drawing board — this time experimenting with the music I already know inside and out from the banjo and guitar.

Oh, God! My blues name is Pillsbury.

I did not choose this. I would have gone for something cool like Stink Eye, Cobra Slide, Suspicious Mole or Thunder Fist.

Alas, one does not choose a blues name. If you pick one yourself, people will know.

No, a blues name is like a horrific itchy sweater knitted by your misanthropic old aunt. Something with colors and textures found only in the ravings of Lovecraft — and you have to wear it because of tradition.

Sigh.

My blues name is Pillsbury. Bestowed upon me by the guitar player who taught me boogie shuffle bass licks on the guitar when I was a teenager.

Pillsbury Costello meditates while making biscuits. You can’t make stuff like this up. I know that mean old bastard who stuck this name on me is laughing somewhere in that great jam session in the sky.

But, as a blues musician, the linear nature of the theremin is starting to conjure up some fascinating musical possibilities. I thought electronic music would mean breaking away from things like the blues — but Son House and Charlie Patton will continue to inspire me and my electric field Dobro. With a lot more practice on scales, I should be able to start adapting what I know to work with this new instrument.

A lot of practice, endless batches of biscuits, and a lot of patience from my friends and family.

On the banjo and guitar, I can play melody, rhythm, harmony, and percussion simultaneously. I do not know if that can be done with this linear instrument — but I am looking forward to finding out.

I know that realizing I have a lot more work to do is not much of a practice update — but growth happens slowly, and never in a single direction. Playing a musical instrument of any kind is a balance between knowledge and instinct, training and spontaneity.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to go try “Jinx Blues” on my theremin. It’s going to be ugly, but that is going to be part of the fun.

After pitching a wang-dang-doodle, I’ll give “Sí Beag, Sí Mór” some more work. Even when taking off on a new direction, always keep your basic skills in order. Ideas are not much use without tools to implement them.

A broken cyborg awaiting repairs.

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