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.
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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