The Deeply Unsettling Sound Of The Theremin Turns 100 Years Old
One of the quirkiest, most misunderstood instruments turns 100 this year. The theremin makes a sound you instantly recognize, but most of us don't know anything about its history — or its potential.
The instrument looks like a small podium, with two metal antennae sticking out of it that the musician never actually touches. The vertical one on the right side controls pitch — so the closer your hand gets, the higher the note. The looped one on the left side controls volume — so the farther away your hand moves, the louder the sound.
WHERE THE THEREMIN COMES FROM
It was invented by a Russian physicist and cellist named Lev Termen (later Anglicized as Leon Theremin) in 1919.
Watch Theremin demoing his own instrument:
"People say he wanted to invent an instrument which was so easy to play, you don't even have to touch it when you play it," said Carolina Eyck, a German-born artist who's been playing the theremin since she was 7. "He was experimenting in his laboratory, and found out that you can change capacity when you wave your hand in front of a metal antenna."
It was one of the first electronic instruments, bringing the space age into the concert hall. Theremin took his invention to New York in 1927, then patented the theremin in 1928. American audiences were enchanted.
"Pretty soon the Radio Corporation of America, RCA, started to build Theremin's instruments," Eyck said. "And we have a very lively time in the '30s, where classical musicians picked up the instrument — violinists like Clara Rockmore — who even got pieces commissioned for theremin and orchestra, which were performed in Carnegie Hall."
Watch an older Clara Rockmore playing in 1977:
Rockmore was a star violinist from Russia who came to the U.S. in 1921. She met Theremin a few years later and fell in love with his invention (as well as the inventor, who she dated for a while). Rockmore treated the theremin like a violin, and she made it famous in a serious way.
"At that time, I still had to prove to the world that the theremin instrument was not just a magic toy and wonderful gadget, and that it was a serious musical instrument, seriously taken," Rockmore said in the 1993 documentary, Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey (which you can stream on Amazon Prime).
ALL THOSE MOVIES WITH THEREMINS IN THEIR SCORES
Then, along came Hollywood.
"They wanted to make weird noises, and spooky," Rockmore sighed. "You were supposed to be frightened by the sounds and all that. And that was not what I wanted to add to. I just wanted to be a serious musician — play Bach!"
In the 1940s and '50s, the theremin was used in several film scores, but in a way that emphasized its freaky, otherworldly qualities — like Bernard Herrmann's score for The Day the Earth Stood Still, alongside many more.
THEREMIN'S MUSICAL EVOLUTION
When that era ended, the theremin more or less fell by the wayside — except for the time Brian Wilson used its sound in "Good Vibrations." (He technically used an Electro-Theremin.)
But it helped birth the world of electronic music. Robert Moog got his start designing his own theremins from kits, which led to his creation of the massively influential Moog synthesizers. If it weren't for this kooky Russian instrument, we might not have new wave music, EDM, or hip-hop.
Recently, the theremin has been making a comeback. When film composer Justin Hurwitz started discussing the music for last year's First Man with director Damien Chazelle, they thought it might be perfect for the story of Neil Armstrong's mission to the moon — but not for the more obvious reasons.
"One thing we talked about from the beginning is how the theremin is so associated with '50s and '60s sci-fi," Hurwitz said. "But we wondered: could it be used in a really emotional way? Eould it be used in a really melodic way? So I got a theremin and started trying our melody, our main theme melody on it."
"I was really taken with how expressive the instrument can be — and, in particular, how emotional our melody played on it. I really loved how it had certain qualities of a human voice. It could sound like singing, or crying, or wailing," Hurwitz said.
Meanwhile, Eyck is tapping into the unexplored potentials of the theremin. Using loop pedals and her voice, she writes music for the instrument that takes it into undiscovered country.
Her father bought a theremin to use in his electronica band, Servi, and wound up giving it to his little girl. As a teenager, Eyck developed her own techniques for measuring the air, and her precise hand gestures almost look like sign language.
"The playing technique really has developed in the past years," she said. "Before, when people would take a music piece from the violin or from a singer, they would try to imitate the violin or a singer. Now we are finding our own ways to let the theremin speak its own language."
Composers are writing new concert works for theremin and orchestra. Eyck just premiered one in Brussels, and she has another premiere in Albany this fall. Ever since she was a little girl, the theremin has been liberating, she said.
"Playing an instrument which almost nobody knows in the audience gives you an enormous freedom to just perform, and be sure that you're not being judged," she said. "That gave me freedom for my music, for my creativity. So, in many ways, it was a guide, or a friend — a teacher — all the way."
If you're so inclined, you can buy one today at Guitar Center — for 500 bucks.