Theremin

Randy George theremin

Celebrating 100 years in 2020!

 

The theremin is one of the earliest electronic musical instruments. It is the only instrument in the world that is played continuously, without any physical contact. It was developed in the 1920’s by Russian scientist and inventor Lev Sergeyevich Termen as a direct product of both his innovations in radio physics and his musical upbringing as a concert cellist. A theremin performer uses his/her arms and hands to influence the motion sensitive capacitave “fields” surrounding the instrument to continuously influence the pitch and loudness of its voice. The tone can range from sounding human-like to string-like or flute/wind-like depending on subtleties in the proficient performer’s musical gestures. Because of its unconventional playing interface, void of tactile reference, the theremin has developed a reputation of being extremely difficult to master. The craft of melodic theremin playing demands a refined combination of skills including musical proficiency and zen-like mastery of body stillness and muscle memory.

 

The theremin was originally conceived to be a melodic musical instrument played similarly to the likes of the violin or cello, but the combination of its steep learning curve and fluid playing interface made it much more appealing to less controlled applications like noise and sound effects. The default playing method, when absent of musical inclination involves a player moving freely with their arm while sustaining an agitated shake of the wrist. This basic approach yields a distinct effect evoking feelings of other-worldliness and fear. The default sound making approach ultimately became the idiomatic spooky sound character in Hollywood science fiction and horror movie soundtracks of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Most notably, this theremin sound was used in Bernard Herrmann’s score from “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) and Miklós Rózsa’s score from “Spellbound” (1945).

 

Over the past twenty years, there has been a surge in awareness of the theremin and it is currently undergoing a renaissance, especially in the context of modern composition and live performance. Although it still seems novel, there has never before been more people interested in the theremin, composing music for theremin, or playing the theremin than there are in the world today. In 2020, the theremin performers, builders, collectors, and enthusiasts are celebrating the 100 year anniversary of Lev Termen’s magical impossible invention.

© 2020 RGM, Z Prism
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