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Theremin: The Musical Instrument That You Can Play Without Touching

The theremin is probably the world's strangest and spookiest musical instrument ever made. It has no keys, no strings, just two metal rods that you don’t even touch. You just move your hands in the air around the device, and an eerie quivering, disembodied voice, like that of an opera singer, emerge from the instrument.

The theremin was an accident. In 1919, the young Russian physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen, or Léon Theremin, as he is known in the west, was working on a high-frequency oscillator he built to measure the dielectric constant of gases. When Termen decided to add an audio circuitry to the device so that it emitted an audible tone when it took a reading, he discovered that the machine was not only responding to the dielectric constant of gases but of people around the machine as well. By changing the position of his hands or by moving around the device, Termen discovered that he could make his machine emit strange noises.

girl playing theremin

A woman playing the theremin in a concert in Istanbul, Turkey. Image credit: caner aytekin/Shutterstock.com

As Termen gathered his fellow scientists around this incredible noisemaker for a demonstration, Termen realized he had a new instrument in front of him. By next year, Termen had mastered his instrument enough for the first public concert. He originally named it the “etherphone”. Later, it was known as the Termenvox in the Soviet Union, and as theremin in the United States.

The theremin typically consists of a box with two metal antennas—one vertical and one horizontal. The musician stands in front of the instrument and moves his hands in the proximity of the two antennas, changing the capacitance of the electromagnetic fields the antennas generate. The electric signals produced by the antennas are then amplified and fed to a loudspeaker. The antennas are wired such that the upright antenna controls the pitch and the horizontal loop antenna controls the volume. When the hand approaches the antennas, the pitch (or the volume) gets higher. When the hand moves away from it, the pitch (or the volume) gets lower. By making small rapid movements with the hands, an expert theremin player can generate soulful music.

Theremin

The theremin.

After a meeting with Vladimir Lenin, who was at the time the Chairman of Russia’s new Bolshevik government, Termen was sent across Russia to show off his instrument and promote the electrification of the country. It drew crowds wherever he went. Lenin then sent Termen on a tour of Europe and the USA to showcase Russian technology and his performances received wide admiration.

“Theremin gathered huge crowds, because it was such a fascinating thing to see this man stand in front of what looked like a little wood writing desk with two metal antennas, and with nothing but his hands in mid-air, produce these melodies, sounding like a soprano singing,” explains Albert Glinsky, the author of Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage. “It was considered magic at the time.”

Termen eventually landed up with a deal with RCA (Radio Corporation of America) to manufacture the device as a commercial venture. RCA marketed it as “the easiest instrument to play,” but as it turned out, playing the theremin was anything but easy. With no keys or fretboard to hold onto and no visual reference points, it took years of practice to master the instrument. Unsurprisingly, RCA managed to sell less than 500 instruments and the venture was a financial disaster.

Clara Rockmore

Clara Rockmore (1911–1998) a virtuoso performer of the theremin playing the instrument.

Léon Theremin demonstrating his invention.

Unknown to his admirers, Termen was leading a dual life in the US. He was also a KGB spy. RCA was America’s cutting-edge electronics manufacturer and his association with them as well as with firms like GE, Westinghouse, and aviation companies allowed him to learn about all their latest discoveries. He fed these information back to the Soviet Union.

Termen also ran his own companies, which were fronts for industrial espionage. Theremin also developed a prototype drum machine and an instrument that responded to a dancer's movements, alarm systems and an electric door opener, but none of his inventions proved a commercial success, and he ended up in debt. When Termen married a young black American ballet dancer, Lavinia Williams, in 1938, his sponsors drew away their support, compounding his financial problems. With his financial and social affairs in tatters, Termen fled back to the Soviet Union leaving his wife behind. Termen’s sudden departure aroused controversy and many suspected he was kidnapped by the KGB.

Alexandra Stepanoff playing the theremin

Alexandra Stepanoff playing the theremin on NBC Radio.

During Theremin’s long absence from the West, his invention’s influence spread. Hollywood composers began to adapt the theremin to create atmospheric background scores for psychological thrillers and science-fiction movies—Music out of the Moon, It Came from Outer Space, The Lost Weekend, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Mars Attacks! and so on.

Meanwhile, back in the Soviet Union, Termen was arrested and falsely accused of being a counter-revolutionary, for which he received an eight year sentence . He was sent to the Gulag in Siberia where he was put to work at a secret laboratory where he created an incredibly advanced bugging device that was used successfully to spy upon British, French and US embassies in Moscow. Termen was released from the Gulag in 1947, but he continued working for the KGB until 1966. Termen did not return to the United States until 1991 at the age of ninety five.

Carolina Eyck demonstrates the eight finger position.

Theremin continues to remain an obscure instrument, partly because it is so difficult to master. Stephen Dunnington, an engineer at Moog Music—a musical instrument manufacturing company that makes theremin—told CBS News that they have sold thousands and thousands of theremins over the years, but he believes only a few hundred people can actually play it.

Despite the obscurity and unknown to many, millions of listeners have heard the instrument through popular bands of the 60z and 70s, such as Led Zepplin, The Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones.

References:
# Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theremin
# Russian Espionage and Electromagnetic Fields: The Story of the Theremin, https://daily.redbullmusicacademy.com/2017/10/theremin-instrumental-instruments
# The Theremin: A strange instrument, with a strange history, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-theremin-a-strange-instrument-with-a-strange-history/
# Leon Theremin: The man and the music machine, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-17340257
# Theremin, https://www.carolinaeyck.com/theremin

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