How does it work?
No strings, no keys… The theremin is a very unique musical instrument : not only the first electronic one in history, but also the only one that is being played without any contact. The thereminist plays “in the air”, interacting with two electromagnetic fields. The vertical antenna determines the pitch and the “loop” is used to shape the sound.
The closer the hand, the higher the pitch
The higher the hand, the louder the sound
Lev Sergueïevitch Termen (1896-1993)
The theremin has been invented by a Russian physicist, Lev Sergueïevitch Termen (Лев Сергеевич Термен, or Leon Theremin). Born in 1896 in St-Petersburg, he dedicated his life to scientifical research.
As he was working on the design of a new electronic device, aimed to measure gaz density, he observed an undesirable impact of external capacitive effects on his measurements. To formulate it better: getting closer of his device, the values displayed changed proportionally to the proximity of his hand. He was immediately very inspired and developed his revolutionary musical instrument out of this unexpected observation.
Lev Termen was a talented musician as well. As a cellist, he naturally started playing some pieces from the cello repertoire on his invention. His musical background helped him a lot to improve the prototype further until he obtained a playable musical instrument. It was called Терменво́кс (termenvox “the voice of Lev Termen” – we just call it theremin today).
In 1922, he was invited to introduce his invention to Lenin, who was really interested and sent Lev Termen all around the country to demonstrate it.
If you are interested to read more about Lev Termen, I would warmly recommend the wonderful book written by Albert Glinsky, Theremin – Ether Music and Espionage.
The forgotten instrument of the 20th century
Curiosity or indifference… The theremin raised uneven levels of interest along its 100-year history. In the 30s, Clara Rockmore was the very first theremin virtuoso, and probably the best classical thereminist ever. In the 50s, the theremin had a big success in the film industry. Science-fiction, scary movies, etc. It was really appreciated to highlight spooky moments. “Music from outer space”, “Alien things”, this stereotype persists.
Before developing awesome synthesizers, Robert Moog started his career building theremins. Thanks to him, fine instruments are still being manufactured today by Moog Music in America.
As a gadget, the theremin is still quite popular and DIY realizations are very common.
Yet, some musicians took the instrument chose to take the instrument to the next level. Among them: Lydia Kavina, Carolina Eyck, Thorwald Jorgensen, Charlie Draper, Katica Illenyi, Dorit Chrysler, Coralie Ehinger, Pamelia Stickney, etc. (and Grégoire Blanc of course).