The Theremin: The Strangest Musical Instrument You’ll Never Touch
If, when you read that title, you thought “Ther-a-what?” it might surprise you to know that you have most likely heard a theremin, even though you may not know the word and have never seen one. So, before you read any further, you might want to take a video break, not only to listen to the unusual sound of the theremin but also to see the unusual way it is played.
If you prefer classical music, I suggest you watch this video of “The Swan” from The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns, performed by Clara Rockmore, a legend in the world of the theremin. Or you might prefer to watch and listen to Swedish pop thereminist (that’s what they are called) Pekkanini rock the theremin in this video of “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Clara Rockmore, by the way, developed a method of playing the theremin based on specific hand and finger positions that was adapted by the inventor and other thereminists.
Did you notice the strange way that the performers strum the strings? If you did, you watched the wrong video, because the theremin has no strings, valves, mouthpieces, keys, or frets. The theremin, one of the earliest electronic music instruments (patented by its namesake inventor Léon Theremin in 1928) is played with no physical contact by the thereminist. The instrument has two antennas that pick up the location of the thereminist’s hands, one hand determining the pitch, the other the volume.
Theremin history – a musical space race
Léon Theremin developed the instrument that he named for himself during a time in which the new government of the Soviet Union was making progress with all things electrical, so an electrical musical instrument fit the national agenda. Vladimir Lenin was so delighted by the theremin that he learned to play at least one song on it and sent Theremin on an international tour to show off what the Soviet Union had accomplished. It sounds like the space race of the 1960s, and that similarity is weirdly appropriate.
Theremin, the inventor, settled in the United States and sold commercial rights to the theremin, his invention, to RCA. By the 1950s, the instrument appealed to electronics hobbyists. Later Robert Moog and others began to manufacture theremins as well as theremin kits. If you watched the Pekkanini video, you could see the Moog trademark on his instrument, a trademark you may know better for the synthesizer that Moog also developed and that Walter (later Wendy) Carlos used for the 1968 album, Switched On Bach (known affectionately by musical purists as S.O.B.).
Theremins in space
It seems a natural that the out-of-this-world sound of the theremin would appeal to producers of science fiction films, although Clara Rockmore tried to establish the instrument in the classical repertoire. Perhaps the most famous use of the theremin in film was in The Day the Earth Stood Still of 1951. You can watch this video in which the theremin sounds loud and weird.
As I did my research for this article, I found disagreement over whether or not the theremin-sounding opening of the television series Star Trek was in fact a theremin or a soprano (perhaps an even stranger instrument, which you touch… but only at your own risk). According to an article (here) on the encyclopedic TheraminWorld.com, “A lot of people still think it’s a female singer.” But according to Wikipedia (here), two sopranos were used for two different versions of the opening. The uncertainty at least emphasizes the vocal quality of the theremin.
The glory days of the theremin seem to be past, but the theremin is not going away. This article grew out of the response to a recent post of mine on Twitter, a response that went on for days, mainly to point out that I had misspelled the word. ThereminWorld.com reports on a new form of theremin, a “Squaremin,” similar to the theremin, that uses infrared sensors. That barometer of our culture, eBay, today returns over 150 items to a search for theremin.
So, if you want to keep up with things, perhaps you’ll mosey on over to YouTube for “Theremin Lesson One.”