Hear Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky” Played on the Theremin

Pink Floyd is sure­ly the most quotable of psych-rock and pro­gres­sive bands. Every­one, no mat­ter their musi­cal tastes, knows lines like “we don’t need no edu­ca­tion, we don’t need no thought con­trol,” “I have become com­fort­ably numb,” and “we’re just two lost souls swim­ming in a fish bowl, year after year.”

The band’s first album with Syd Bar­rett was full of word­play and whim­sy. Lat­er song­writ­ing cut right to the heart of things, with razor-sharp obser­va­tions, heart­break­ing state­ments, sneer­ing jibes, and stri­dent pro­nounce­ments. In their finest iter­a­tions, they were a band with some­thing to say.

These qual­i­ties make it all the more strik­ing that one of their most mov­ing com­po­si­tions is a song with­out any words, unless we count the vocal sam­ples at the begin­ning from writer Mal­colm Mug­geridge. Smack in the mid­dle of Dark Side of the Moon, “The Great Gig in the Sky” show­cas­es a soul­ful impro­vi­sa­tion by guest vocal­ist Clare Tor­ry (who final­ly, right­ful­ly, received a writ­ing cred­it in 2004). Her voice pro­vides all the dra­mat­ic ten­sion the song needs, com­mu­ni­cat­ing more, in pure­ly emo­tion­al terms, than any lyric the band might have writ­ten.

Does the effect come through when her per­for­mance is replayed on a Theremin? You be the judge. The song made famous by its word­less inten­si­ty meets an instru­ment played with­out any touch—it’s a poet­ic kind of mashup, and a well-exe­cut­ed cov­er. Theremin play­er Char­lie Drap­er doesn’t only play Torry’s vocal, but also David Gilmour’s ped­al steel gui­tar parts, which are prob­a­bly bet­ter suit­ed to the instru­ment. As an added bonus, he plays over one of the ear­li­er instru­men­tal demos of the song with sam­ples from Apol­lo 17 astro­nauts, adding a few more words that serve only as more atmos­phere behind the melody.

The Theremin is often pegged as a nov­el­ty instru­ment, defin­ing the sound of B‑movie sci-fi, but it has a long and dis­tin­guished his­to­ry. First called the Ether­phone by Russ­ian inven­tor Leon Theremin, it became the pas­sion­ate instru­ment of choice for clas­si­cal play­er Clara Rock­more in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry. A sort of mini-Theremin revival has brought it back into promi­nence as a seri­ous inter­preter of clas­si­cal and mod­ern music. On his YouTube chan­nel, Drap­er demon­strates his appre­ci­a­tion for the Theremin’s range, play­ing Mozart, Grieg, Gersh­win, and the theme from the film First Man. Just above, Hank Green tells us all about the physics of the Theremin, in a SciShow crash course that could answer many of the ques­tions you might have had while watch­ing Drap­er play Pink Floyd on one.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear How Clare Torry’s Vocals on Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky” Made the Song Go from Pret­ty Good to Down­right Great

Watch Jim­my Page Rock the Theremin, the Ear­ly Sovi­et Elec­tron­ic Instru­ment, in Some Hyp­not­ic Live Per­for­mances

Meet Clara Rock­more, the Pio­neer­ing Elec­tron­ic Musi­cian Who First Rocked the Theremin in the Ear­ly 1920s

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him

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