The Theremin
The electronic sound of the other-world, at a flick of the wrist

If you thought electronic music was a new invention, or that Kraftwerk (or even modern dance acts) were it's earliest pionéers, you'd better think again. Neither was the Moogs or Buchlas of the lysergic sixties the first boxes of electric sound to be used in music.

In the swingin', jet-set life of 20s New York, however, the aetheric sound of the radio age Theremin was the big thing. The inventor, russian born Lev Termen , made an apparatus that made it possible for any person with or without musical skills - but with a sensitive ear - to actually make notes out of thin air.

In Termens own words: I wanted to invent …an instrument that would not operate mechanically …that would create sound without using any mechanical energy, like the conductor of an orchestra. The orchestra plays mechanically, using mechanical energy, [but] the conductor just moves his hands, and his movements have an effect on the music …

Termen (above and right), or Leo Theremin as he is more commonly known, also experimented with early television transmission. Oh, did I mention that? Colour television. In the late 20s! But that's another story, along with his then controversial marriage to an afro-american dancer, him being kidnapped back to native Russia by the KGB in 1938 to develop surveillance equipment, and presumed dead - until his return to the US of A in 1991.

The Theremin works with the beat-frequency principle, where two oscillators - one fixed and one variable - produce two almost, but not quite, identical signals. By using the human body as the capacitor for the variable oscillator, any movement of said body will alter the difference between the two, and thus the pitch of the sound. In practical use, the thereminist will use his or her right hand to control the pitch.The closer it is to the antenna, the higher the note. The left hand antenna controls the volume. Sounds like sci-fi? Try moving about your own room while receiving a poor FM or TV signal ...

The Theremin player never actually touches the two antennas of the instrument. "Theremin players do it without touching", as BigBriar's bumper sticker once read. All sound, timbre and intonation comes from the movement of the hands of the player. In the hands - or technically not - of a skilled musician, the Theremin can be played beautifully; it's sound being somewhat between a violin and a musical saw. Clara Rockmore, the instrument's perhaps finest virtuoso, plays the Theremin on the near-top photo. Note the characteristic triangular loudspeaker.

Sadly, it never got to be known as the fine art solo instrument it was meant to be. It's sometimes eerie sound was on the other hand perfect for 30s, 40s and 50s horror, humour and sci-fi movies. "The day the Earth stood still" has perhaps the most famous Theremin score , with the instrument used as a sound effect. It's humour potensial can be seen in the 1957 "The Delicate Delinquent" (actually the first time I unwittingly saw a Theremin, was in this movie. I searched for years, not knowing what it was ...). The eerie sound following the main character's delirium tremens in "The lost weekend" from 1945 is of course a Theremin. But the Theremin also made some notable appearances in popular music. Most famous is actually it's non-appearance in the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations"! The instrument played on this track is actually a Tannerin, a 50s "replacement" for the more difficult-to-play Theremin.

More to come!

To my other pages!

My very own Theremin, a Bob Moog-made Big Briar Etherwave. I've had the wooden body beautifully Shellac covered, piano style. Wonderful.

The blue-hazed photo features this page's author playing at the Garage, with Sjur Hansen's project band Bismarck - a journey into angst.

Footage

Footage of Leo Theremin at a 1928 concert, playing his invention. [right-click to download]. Another clip of the theremin in use [right-click to download].

The 'vocal' bit from Gnarls Barkley's hit 'Crazy' as played on the Theremin.  A brilliant example of how close the sound of the Theremin can get to the human voice. [youtube]

Manuals

Clara Rockmore's Method for Theremin. Pdf file, 16 pages.

User manual for Moog's Bigbriar Etherwave. Pdf file, 4 pages.

User manual for the 1928 RCA Theremin. Pdf file, 10 pages.

Virtual theremin

BBC virtual Theremin (Mac) (PC - needs Shockwave 8) Pro'lly the only site remaining sporting a working link!

Retro-ware: "Hendrix" simulator, with a Theremin feel. Only a vintage Macintosh SE/30 (yup, the Captain Nemo-style box with the FPU) could play it, and I think the OS was pre System 7 as well. Addictive ...

External links

Thereminworld.

Big Briar (Moog Music. Look for Etherwave theremins)