The Theremin (or as it was originally called Thereminophone or Thereminvox) was one of the earliest electronic instruments of the 20th century. Its inventor, a Russian by the name of Lev Sergeyevich Termen (we know him in the west as Leon Theremin), designed the theremin in 1920. This device was a Soviet-sponsored research project that was designed to use the proxy of sensors. Theremin toured heavily all over Europe showing off his newest invention, and he finally ended up in America where he it was patented in 1928. He then licensed it to RCA which produced their version known as the Thereminvox which didn’t sell very well. However, it did garner quite a reaction from the American public who were amazed by the unnatural sounds it produced and that someone could play an instrument without physically touching it. The one true artist who was taken by the instrument was Clara Rockmore who most consider to be the best Thereminist to ever live. See for yourself, her musicianship and facility on this instrument is nothing more than other-worldly. If you close your eyes and listen, she sounds exactly like any truly great opera singer. This piece is entitled “The Swan” from Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals.
Theremin left America in 1938 under much mystery to return to Russia to work in a Siberian Prison laboratory on a covert Russian project which lasted 30 years. In the US the instrument fell to the wayside with serious musicians, and became more of a hobbyist’s passion to build. And that is where a high school student by the name of Robert Moog came in. He started writing articles about building these instruments which started him on the way to inventing his first synth, and of course, the rest is history!
The instrument has one vertical antenna which controls pitch (the closer you get the higher the note) and the horizontal antenna which controls the volume (the closer you are the quieter it is). Its pitch circuitry includes two radio frequency oscillators set below 500 kHz to minimize radio interference. One oscillator operates at a fixed frequency. The frequency of the other oscillator is almost identical, and is controlled by the performer’s distance from the pitch control antenna. The performer’s hand acts as the grounded plate with the performer’s body being the connection to ground. The volume section uses a similar dual oscillator which changes capacitance in order to change the volume.
In the 1950’s the instrument fell out of favor among serious musicians, but did find it’s way into many movie soundtracks including The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Lost Weekend, and The Thing From Another Planet. Most of the sounds of this time period evoke an ethereal “out of this world” sound, one that leaves the movie-goer uncomfortable.
It wasn’t until the 60’s and 70’s when the instrument really crossed over into the rock and avant-garde fringes of music. Bands like Boston’s Lothar and The Hand People, a little band called Led Zepplin, and even Brian Jones used one on “Their Santanic Majesties Request.” But, it was the Beach Boys with their custom made theremin-type instrument commissioned by trombonist Paul Tanner that was used on the outro melody of Good Vibrations on the album Pet Sounds that really sealed the fate for that sound to reach a mainstream audience. This device was called an Electro-Theremin which was pretty much the same except it used a ribbon controller for pitch and a volume knob for you guessed it volume. Another such instrument that pre-dated (1952) Tanner’s instrument but was based on Moogs’ kit was designed by the brilliant inventor and composer Raymond Scott called the Clavivox which incorporated a working keyboard as we know it to control pitch.
Now this instrument can obviously be used for astonishing musicality but can also easily be used as a one-trick-pony as time as shown us. This gets me to my personal brush with greatness of this instrument. In the early 2000’s I was playing and touring with a band called Seekonk who was lucky enough to share a few bills with the great Barbez from NYC. They are “a haunting mosaic of avant-rock, old-world cabaret, Eastern European folksong, and contemporary classical into a uniquely beautiful and personal soundscape.” So their singer at the time was a classically trained Russian ballerina and they had great instrumentation as well as a great theremin player. The first time we played with them the theremin player was very very good, but the second time they had a different woman playing named Pamelia Kurstin who absolutely BLEW me away with her prowess. She had amazing pitch and technique, but her ability to master the volume side of the instrument was amazing. She started doing these Jazz walking bass lines that to this day boggles my mind. I feel very honored to have shared a stage with her!! This is an excerpt from a great TED talk she did entitled “the untouchable music of the theremin. See for yourself: