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The Story of the Theremin

December 8, 2015

That spooky instrument you hear in old horror and sci-fi movies? That’s a theremin, one of the strangest musical instruments ever created.

Theremin musical instrument

The sound is familiar, even if the name isn’t. The warbling melody in the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” the electronic keening that underscores 1950s sci-fi movies—it’s a tone somewhere between a slide whistle and a singing saw: That’s the sound of the theremin.

Purely electronic, the theremin is unique in that the player never touches it. Two antenna-like capacitors—one controlling pitch, the other volume—protrude from a box that houses radio frequency oscillators. The resulting signal is fed out through a speaker. The device is played with delicate, precise motions of the hands in the air around the antennae. The effect is eerie, as if the player is conjuring music from the ether; in fact, inventor Léon Theremin’s original name for his instrument was the etherphone.

A physicist and amateur cellist, Theremin invented his instrument in 1920, more or less by accident, while working for the Soviet government on a device to detect objects through the air (sort of like radar). The Soviets sent him on a European tour to demonstrate the device (and Soviet ingenuity), and he played to packed concert halls across the continent. In 1928 he defected to the U.S., where he stayed for 10 years, setting up a lab in New York City During his decade in New York, Theremin—along with his protegée, Clara Rockmore—worked to popularize electronic music. Serious contemporary composers like Percy Grainger, Miklós Rózsa, and Dmitri Shostakovich were soon writing works integrating the theremin into the concert orchestra.

Then, in 1938, Theremin was kidnapped by the KGB and put to work in a secret government lab in Siberia, where he remained until 1966. Upon his release, he turned to teaching, living in obscurity. Many believed he was dead. After the collapse of the
Soviet Union, Theremin began to travel again, eventually returning to New York, where he was reunited with old friends, including Rockmore.

It’s easy to make noise on a theremin, but quite difficult to make music. It requires tremendous mental discipline—concentration, sense of pitch, and muscle memory—as well as daunting physical skill. During Theremin’s half-century absence, it was nigh impossible to find instructors qualified to teach the instrument, and the theremin fell into disrepute. Its use by self-taught rock and avant-garde musicians—many of whom employed it primarily as a sound effect—gave it a reputation as a novelty instrument.

But since Theremin’s death in 1993, there’s been a resurgence of serious interest in the instrument. A new generation of players and composers—including Theremin’s grand-niece Lydia Kavina, a virtuoso trained by the old man himself—are writing and performing new music for the theremin, taking advantage of its ethereal qualities.

For more stories of weird inventions, discover Uncle John’s Weird Inventions.

Trivia Books

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