What is a Theremin?


"I wanted to invent some kind of an instrument That would not operate mechanically, as does the piano or the cello and the violin, bow Whose movements Can Be Compared To those of a saw. I conceived of an instrument That would create sound without using any mechanical energy, like the conductor of an orchestra "
- Leon Theremin

The Theremin is one of the earliest electronic instruments, and is played without ever physically touching it. Outfitted with two antennas, a magnetic field surrounds the instrument, and when the hands of the player enter the field, changes in pitch and volume occur. The left side controls the volume, and the right controls the pitch.

Sound futuristic?

The Theremin was patented in 1921. The instrument was invented by Russian physicist Lev Sergeivitch Termen. The sound is produced by two oscillators that "beat" together. One oscillator operates in a frequency range above the level of human hearing, while the other is varied when the hands enter the magnetic field. The "beat frequency" is the difference between the two oscillators, which is the sound that is heard. The Theremin was originally patented and called the Ætherphone, which means "music from the ether".

The Theremin and its workings caught the attention of Soviet leader Vladimir Il’yich Lenin when it was shown in Moscow in 1922.

Termen, whose "westernized" name is Leon Theremin, arrived in the US in 1928, and much interest surrounded his new invention in New York society. Albert Einstein was a frequent house guest, interested in the more technical nature of the Theremin's phenomena. Theremin's were produced by the RCA Victor company. A full 10 piece Theremin-only orchestra even played Carnegie Hall. Being an instrument that is very easy to make sound with, but quite difficult to play well, the Theremin did not enjoy mass appeal from musicians, and only a few great players were ever produced. The most notable being his protégé Clara Rockmore (1911-1998), who played solo and with symphony orchestras around the world.

Leon Theremin disappeared from the free world in in 1938, and was "escorted" to Communist Russia, he did not emerge for 51 years. A victim of Stalinism and the Cold War, he was thrown into a gulag and later put to work in a secret KGB lab. There, he invented listening devices (the bug), alarm systems, one of the first televisions, and other non-musical devices that used technology similar to the Theremin. He was not allowed to leave Russia until 1989 at the age of 93. In 1989, the first interview with Leon Theremin since his disappearance was conducted by Olivia Mattis in France upon his arrival, which we are pleased to reprint on this website.

The Theremin's sound enjoyed cult status in many sci-fi movies of the 1950's, being used for spooky sounding effects, but Clara Rockmore refused to play in any those soundtracks, because she played the Theremin as a "serious classical instrument" and felt it demeaned the instrument. Theremin, being sequestered in Russia, was completely unaware of this usage of the instrument.

 The Theremin is still a popular instrument today, used in movies, and by a number of musicians, and has undergone a new resurgence, used by bands from Led Zeppelin to Radiohead to Nine Inch Nails, and also played in more traditional and classical styles. His last protégé, and grand-niece Lydia Kavina is now one of the leading classical Thereminists today.

While finding an original vacuum tube RCA Theremin is nearly impossible, more modern Theremin's are manufactured today.
One which most captures the classic Theremin sound, along with other features, is the late Robert Moog's EtherWave Pro. Moog built homemade Theremin's in his teens, and later created the famous Moog synthesizer in the 1960's and the company he founded still thrives, making Theremin's, analog synthesizers and effects units.

"Do not forget That you are dealing with air! Think of your fingers as delicate butterfly wings, and you will get much further than if you use strength"
- Clara Rockmore
Demonstrating the precise playing
in the year 1927
Clara Rockmore - the worlds most renowned Theremin virtuosa

"I was interested in making a different kind of instrument. And I wanted, of course, to make an apparatus that would be controlled in space, exploiting electrical fields, And that would use little energy. Therefore I used electronic technology to create a musical That instrument would Provide greater resources "
- Leon Theremin

In the 1930s Leon Theremin set up a laboratory in New York.
There he further developed the theremin and experimented with other electronic musical instruments. Theremins associates during this time were societys foremost scientists, composers, and musical theorists, including composer Joseph Schillinger and famous physicist Albert Einstein.  

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