Ethereal Expression

The History and Significance of the Theremin

Music is a form of expression which can liberate both musician and listener from the confines of physical reality. An instrument is the mechanical interface between a musician and the tones we hear as music.

However, in 1931 Joseph Schillinger, a modern composer, wrote:

The growth of musical art in any age is determined by the technological progress which parallels it. Neither composer nor performer can transcend the limits of the instruments of his time….Although it is true that musicians may have ideas which hurdle these technical barriers, yet, being forced to use existing instruments, their intentions remain unrealized until scientific progress comes to the rescue. (26)

At the dawn of the age of electricity, a Russian physicist named Lev Terman developed a new instrument that would allow composers and performers to transcend musical limits. The theremin attracted me because I was frustrated at not being able to express fluid chords on the piano with my small hands, or to accompany non-traditional music. However, the theremin’s interface liberated me from this constraint of expression because it continuously reacts to the position of my hands within its energy fields and responds with an electric voice capable of singing any frequency within its five octave range.

The theremin’s technology frees musicians from mechanical limitations, but its lack of tactile feedback makes it difficult to play well. Since there are no points of reference for any musical tones, a thereminist must rely entirely on her ears to find the right notes and play them skillfully. Since 1920, when the original instrument was first demonstrated, musicians and composers have used the theremin’s liberating nature positively and negatively; for enjoyable, sophisticated music, and annoying, mediocre noise. As a result, audiences have either lauded the theremin as a superior instrument or derided it as a sound-effects device. However, between the 1960’s and 1990’s, music experienced an electronic revolution, and the instrument regained acceptance by modern musicians and audiences. Just like any other serious instrument, the theremin has endured its initial growing pains, and now it is technologically situated to thrive as a lyrical instrument of ethereal expression.

So what exactly is a theremin? It is a box with circuitry and two antennae, and it is played by altering electric fields around the antennae with one’s hands. I have a Big Briar Etherwave Theremin, which is a very functional specimen of a modern instrument. The black box with four adjustment knobs, a power switch, and an audio-out port on the front is approximately 17 inches wide, 6 inches deep, and 2.5 inches high. A straight, tubular antenna 16 inches tall extends upward from the right side, while a circular, tubular antenna extends horizontally from the left side in a loop with a diameter of 5 inches. The Etherwave is mounted on a microphone stand at hip height and it is placed away from furniture or other objects to avoid field interference (Big Briar, “Setting”). To play the Etherwave Theremin, you simply position yourself slightly left and in front of the instrument, moving your right hand horizontally toward and away from the pitch antenna and your left hand vertically over the volume antenna. The theremin is played without any physical contact, yet any slight movement of the fingers causes the theremin’s pitch to alter. Therefore, it is necessary to stand still and hold your fingers precisely before a recognizable melody can be played.

How does the theremin actually produce its pitch? Although it may seem like magic, the theremin operates under the scientific principles of electricity. Inside the black box are several circuits, including a fixed-pitch oscillator and a variable-pitch oscillator which are controlled by the distance between the pitch antenna and the right hand (Big Briar, “Understanding” 1-3). The effect of the hand on the antenna’s electric field can be measured by a physical quantity known as capacitance, which varies with the distance to the antenna. The circuitry connected to the antenna detects the hand’s capacitance and generates the corresponding tone. According to Thomas Rhea, an electronic music expert, “the tone generator is a heterodyning, or beat-frequency oscillator. It is the difference…between two supersonic frequencies that creates the pitch we hear” (“Art” 61). In other words, the audible frequency is the difference between the stable frequency of the fixed pitch oscillator and the variable frequency of the controlled oscillator. Due to the relationship between capacitance and distance, notes are farther apart in the bass range and closer together in the high range, approximating a distance versus frequency response “very similar to that of a stringed instrument” (Crowhurst 69).

Like the violin or cello, the theremin’s voice is articulated by variations in the playing posture of the hands and arms, while the position of the body remains steady. Although fingering patterns and hand positions may vary, most thereminists prefer to affect a vibrato by smoothly wavering their right wrist. The intensity of the pitch is controlled by the capacitance between the left hand and the volume antenna; one can play in tremolo by wavering the left wrist. In addition, by quickly lowering one’s hand or finger into the volume well of the loop, the theremin’s pitch can be silenced between notes, allowing a distinct melody rather than a constant glissando. Antenna volume control was not available on the earliest theremins, but the feature was incorporated as the instrument evolved.

The evolution of the theremin and its community is similar to that of any other musically capable instrument; as initial limitations of design give way to refinements, more virtuosos are trained and the repertoire and popularity of the instrument eventually increase. When the theremin arrived in the 20’s, its technological novelty gained it widespread celebrity, but musical difficulties caused a temporary decline in interest during the 30’s. The underground theremin community survived through the 40’s and 50’s, when the instrument gained its spooky reputation. The musical revolution of the 60’s revived the theremin in experimental rock, and the digital revolution of the 90’s allowed the theremin to reinfiltrate popular music.

Lev Terman developed the first electronic instrument which did not rely on keyboard control. Seventy years later, the inventor said that he had “conceived of an instrument that would create sound without using any mechanical energy, like the conductor of an orchestra….I became interested in bringing about progress in music, so that there would be more musical resources” (Mattis and Moog 49). The theremin was smaller and more versatile than other early electronic instruments, such as the Telharmonium, which weighed 200 tons (Chadabe 4). The Hammond organ was commercially successful, and the Ondes Martenot, which also used the heterodyning principle, gained a large repertoire, but all were dependent on the keyboard interface (Chadabe 12-13). The electric novelty and romantic aura of the theremin defined the instrument’s early history, but despite its revolutionary interface, the time was not yet right for electronic music.

When automobiles and electric street lamps were still rare, the theremin debuted and immediately gained widespread attention. Lev Sergeyevich Terman, who had changed his name to Leon Theremin, toured Europe and arrived in New York in the late 20’s amid newspaper headlines such as “Ether Wave Music Amazes Savants” and “Paris Musicians Won by New Instrument.” According to reports, “when [Theremin] played at the Paris Opera [in 1927], police were called to keep order among the crowds that thronged to the performance, and standing room was sold in the boxes for the first time in history” (Darter and Armbruster 29). The public was amazed and intrigued by its mystifying playing technique, which “added a high degree of theatricality to a performance” (Holmes 42).

The instrument attained a romantic aura and respectable profile due to Leon Theremin’s association with high culture. Lenin played Theremin’s instrument in the Soviet Union, while Rachmaninoff and Toscanini attended a performance in the United States. Leon was in the midst of a metropolitan musical climate; the Theremin Electrical Symphony and Stokowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra played his instruments, and notable composers including Edgard Varese, Percy Grainger, and Joseph Schillinger wrote for the theremin. Even Einstein took an interest in his fellow physicist’s invention. Theremin continued to develop new instruments such as an electronic cello, the Rythmicon drum machine, and the Terpsitone musical dancing stage (Doerschuk, “Life” 50). However, the theremin needed a true virtuoso to properly interpret the capabilities of the instrument.

A young, musically gifted Russian named Clara Reisenberg settled in New York, encountering Theremin and his new device. She had to give up playing the violin because “growing up in Russia in those revolutionary days, my bones did not form correctly, because there was little food. My right arm, especially, became too weak for violin playing” (Moog 70). Subsequently, Clara became a skilled classical thereminist, and was widely regarded as the first virtuoso of the instrument:

Her technique [of aerial fingering] coordinated precise arm and finger movements. She played trills and pitch leaps with unprecedented accuracy. Her articulation took flowing phrases and rapid staccato passages in equal stride. And above all, her solid, natural musicianship held the audience spellbound, easily transcending the novelty aspects of the medium and of her playing technique. (Rhea, Rev. of Art 62)

Leon courted Clara, but eventually she married Robert Rockmore, a lawyer, and Leon wedded Lavina Williams, a member of the first African-American dance company (Doerschuk, “Life” 50).

Despite the theremin’s promising beginning, press reviews and composers criticized performances which were often plagued with poor intonation and tiresome music. According to The Art of Electronic Music:

Comments like “…this fearfully magnified and potent tone,” and “…super-Theremin machines can hurl a jazz ditty through the atmosphere with such horribly magnificent sonorities that they could deaden the sound of an automobile exhaust” became more common as the novelty of ether music wore off. (29)

This criticism resulted from the undeveloped state of the instrument and musical environment. The early vacuum-tube instruments were very sensitive and difficult to tune because factors such as temperature, humidity, and proximity to moving objects affect capacitance and cause the range to drift (Forrest 3). In addition, thereminists had to play with a constant vibrato because of the primitive pedal volume control (Rhea, “Evolution” 45). Meanwhile, musicians and composers simply transcribed music for the theremin from solo parts of traditional compositions, but the music was too old-fashioned and musicians really didn’t exploit the special features of the theremin. Some composed for the instrument, but a reviewer wrote that Schillinger’s “First Airphonic Suite” for the theremin “adheres to fairly well-known harmonic formulae, and is evidently constructed with a special eye to simplicity and a background for a sustained melody to be played on the electrical antennae” (Rhea, “Evolution” 52). Modern composer John Cage commented that “when Theremin provided an instrument with genuinely new possibilities, thereminists did their utmost to make the instrument sound like some old instrument, giving it sickeningly sweet vibrato and performing on it, with difficulty, masterpieces of the past” (qtd. in Doerschuk, “Music” 51). Despite Clara Rockmore’s talent and the growing community of jazz-improvisation thereminists, the theremin lost the public’s attention because popular music’s traditional acoustic paradigms were not quite compatible with the theremin’s new electric style.

The 30’s brought events which would seriously threaten the theremin community. RCA manufactured theremins and falsely assured the public that anyone who could hum or whistle could play their model, but their venture was a commercial disaster (Chadabe 8-9). The Depression reduced the likelihood of a family buying an expensive home theremin, and potential thereminists encountered a shortage of instruments (Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey). Under mysterious circumstances, Leon was kidnapped by the KGB from his New York apartment in 1938, and was thought dead for 50 years (Chadabe 10). Fortunately, the underground theremin community survived through the 40’s and 50’s due to the efforts of dedicated enthusiasts. Electronic hobbyists such as Robert Moog kept the theremin’s circuitry alive by developing the smaller and more stable transistorized theremin and selling build-your-own theremin kits through magazines (Holmes 78). Moog also invented the synthesizer and is considered the father of electronic music. Amateur performers such as Samuel Hoffman played the instrument on suspense and science-fiction film soundtracks such as The Lost Weekend, Alice in Wonderland, and The Day the Earth Stood Still, which popularized the theremin’s reputation as an eerie sound-effects device (Rhea, “Evolution” 58). The theremin had undergone a technological evolution and gained a popular spooky image, but the instrument was not given much artistic consideration until the musical revolution of the 60’s.

The theremin experienced a musical and cultural revival between the 60’s and the 90’s. The experimental atmosphere of the rock music scene inspired the Beach Boys to use a theremin in “Good Vibrations,” while Jimmy Page played one for Led Zeppelin’s movie, “The Song Remains the Same” (Barile). Jazz virtuoso Youseff Yancy continued the theremin’s association with traditional style, while the spacy rock of Lothar and the Hand People “represent[s] a creative effort by rock musicians to stretch the boundaries of their music beyond the usual limits of the audience” (Holmes 205). In 1995, a documentary entitled Theremin: an Electronic Odyssey captured the interest of audiences and reintroduced the theremin to popular culture. The movie’s director discovered Leon Theremin living in Russia, where he had been forced to work in obscurity for the KGB. The inventor visited the USA, attending a Stanford concert held in his honor and reuniting with Clara Rockmore in New York before his death after the release of the documentary (Doerschuk, “Filmmaker”). The digital revolution of the 90’s contributed to the theremin’s new wave of popularity. Internet websites and discussions propelled interest forward, and allowed fellow thereminists to communicate and collaborate. The new demand for professional and inexpensive instruments was met by manufacturers such as Big Briar, Robert Moog’s company, and Longwave, the maker of the pocket theremin (Big Briar, Voice; Forrest). The list of musicians and bands who use the theremin is growing as the instrument gains new virtuosos and infiltrates the modern music scene. Lydia Kavina, the great-niece of Leon, is a professional classical thereminist, while Eric Ross uses the instrument for avante-garde jazz. The groovy rock of Phish and electronic sound of Portishead is spreading the instrument’s fame and defining new musical territory that is well-suited for the theremin’s electric voice (Barile).

The theremin allows pure creativity, but like any instrument, its quality and popularity over the years has been defined by the status of the hardware, music, and musicians. Undeveloped instruments are difficult to play, but new incarnations of the theremin have increased its functionality and ease of use. Boring, old-fashioned compositions don’t really suit the theremin, but space-age music utilizes the instrument’s revolutionary capabilities. Amateur musicians have given the theremin a bad reputation, but there are a growing number of virtuoso thereminists.

Unlike many outdated instruments, the theremin is uniquely suited to survive and thrive because the electronic future of music requires advanced control, lyrical instruments and an open mind to free music. A MIDI-enabled theremin is capable of controlling programmed instruments, and experimental devices based on the capacitance detection of the theremin offer “new musical interface applications that unobtrusively detect a performer’s actions [that] can then be mapped into sounds at levels of interaction ranging from simple pitch control to complex shaping of algorithms” (Paradiso and Gershenfeld 87). The theremin adds a desperately needed electric voice to computer synthesized music. In a recent interview, Clara Rockmore complained that “today, everything electronic seems so automated. Nobody counts anymore, nobody thinks anymore. Everything is done by computers.” (Moog 184). Fortunately, the theremin offers a lyrical voice that allows experimentation with alternative musical modes and pure freedom of expression.

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