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.
"An instrument with a great future behind it"
This witticism from writer Ken Hollings is very accurate: 100 years after its invention, the theremin is paradoxically considered as futuristic, yet as a forgotten mystery from the past century. Either the cool gadget played by Sheldon Cooper in “The Big-Bang Theory” or the eerie fantomatic sound heard in Sci-Fi movies from the 50’s…
The theremin has acquired its musical legitimity thanks to five people who where convinced by its unique voice and were able to bring it to new horizons.
Clara Rockmore was the very first theremin virtuoso, and probably the best classical thereminist ever. In parallel to Clara’s classical approach, Samuel Hoffman brought the theremin to Hollywood with great success.
Before developing synthesizers, Robert Moog started his career building theremins. Fine instruments are still being manufactured today by Moog Music in America.
For years, Lydia Kavina was the only living serious thereminist. Her student Carolina Eyck contributed to bring the instrument even further and a new interest for the instrument arose in the past decade.
Now, the challenge for contemporary thereminists is in this direction: going beyond the persistent “what the hell factor”, playing music!