Theremin: Ghostly electronic music with a modern twist
By James Grahame
Here's another great piece from Duncan Waldron...
Jimmy Page, Michael Faraday, Gene Roddenberry - what's the link? Jimmy has played one, Michael gave his name to the electrical property at work, and Gene had one play the theme for Star Trek. OK, enough - it's the Theremin - the first electronic instrument.
Devised in Russia by Léon Theremin (Lev Sergeyevich Termen) around the time of the Bolshevik revolution, it made a big impression upon Lenin, who had 600 made for the good Soviet people, and even sent Theremin around the world with it, to showcase the amazing Russian technology. Contrary to Lenin's enthusiasm for the wondrous new instrument, it is said that after the 2nd World War, the Soviets "discouraged" Theremin from working on electronic music, opining that "electricity should be reserved for the execution of traitors."
The Theremin itself looks like a strange sort of writing desk, with a couple of aerials sticking out of it. In use, it looks even more bizarre, as the musician stands very still in front of it, and moves only his/her arms around the aerials.
It operates on the principle of the musician's body capacitance modulating a heterodyning effect* created by radio frequencies emitted by the two antennae, which results in an audible "beat frequency" between 0 and 6,000 Hz. One hand controls volume, the other, pitch.
The sound is monophonic, and said to resemble the sound of a violin string being played. That description really doesn't convey the almost eerie quality of the music, which has been employed in diverse situations from the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations", to the theme music from the British TV series "Midsomer Murders", as well as incorporation into performances of well-known classical pieces.
From its early beginnings as something that would not have looked too out of place in an Edwardian drawing room (if you ignored the antennae), it is still in production in much more compact forms including those by no less a figure than Bob Moog. Moog started out making Theremin kits, before launching into full-blown synthesisers, but has gone back to including small electronic Theremins in his line-up. Rock and roll ... sway and sweep. (Can it take a wah-wah pedal...?)
* S'funny - my brother and I used to amuse ourselves sometimes as kids, by heterodyning our voices and producing a varying beat frequency. We just thought it was a funky effect; didn't know what it was called!