Charlie Draper
 

Theremin

The theremin is an early monophonic electronic instrument invented by the Russian physicist Lev Sergeyevitch Termen (later known as  Léon Theremin) in around 1920. It is controlled by free motion of the player's hands around two field-emitting antennae, one of which controls pitch, the other volume. As the player's hand moves nearer or further from the vertical antenna, the tone gets higher or lower. As the player's hand moves up or down over the looped antenna, the volume increases or decreses. Through the execution of precise gestures in midair, it is possible to make the theremin sing, effectively summoning music from the air. Although the theremin is noteworthy for being the only expressive musical instrument controlled entirely without physical contact, its most interesting feature is its tone, which lies somewhere between a stringed instrument and a voice, and which is capable of infinite sustain and infinite gradations of pitch and volume. For Percy Grainger, it was “the most perfect tonal instrument”.

My work with the theremin spans classical, contemporary and commercial performances, underpinned by a fascination with instrument's history.

 
 

History

Leon Theremin demonstrates his new invention (1927)

The history of the theremin spans two world wars, set amid the struggle between Russia and America, capitalism and communism, idealism and harsh reality. Above all, it is the story of one mysterious man, whose visionary music stirred the world, saw his loyalties divided, and almost cost him his life.

Lev Sergeyevitsch Termen, later known as Leon Theremin, was born in St Petersburg on August 15th 1896. Theremin's extraordinary gift for engineering was visible from an early age. At three, he was reading his father's encyclopaedias. At seven, he had dismantled and reassembled watches and other mechanical items his father had purchased from the fleamarkets of Nevsky Prospekt. By fifteen, he had constructed his own observatory, reporting his discovery of a previously unknown star to the Astronomical Institute.

In October 1920, he noticed that one of his inventions, employing new radio technology to measure the capacitant properties of gas, was emitting a strange warbling tone: by moving his hands nearer and further from the equipment, he could pick out a ghostly melody.  In this moment, the principles of the theremin were born.

In the late 1920s, Leon enchanted concert-going audiences with his instrument, and the Radio Corporation of America sought to put 'a theremin in every home', offering Leon $100,000 in exchange for rights to mass-produce the instrument. Despite such enthusiasm, the number of theremin virtuosi has always remained small. This is not least because the instrument demands of the performer extraordinarily sensitive control of the body. 

Any motion of the body or any solid object in the playing fields will affect the tone of the instrument, and the player must carefully control every movement while operating the instrument. Playing the theremin thus requires extreme concentration, a keen attention to pitch,  and a great deal of patience.

The theremin retains an important if specific place in the modern orchestral repertoire. Its instantly recognisable mixture of electronic and ethereal vocal sounds have been used by composers ranging from Dmitri Shostakovich and Bernard Herrmann to Howard Shore and Danny Elfman. Many of the works in which it appears are well-known and much loved, but rarely heard in concert because the number of capable theremin players is so tiny. Its invention also proved an inception point for early experimentation in electronic sound generation. The father of the modern synthesizer, Robert Moog, cited Leon Theremin as one of his greatest influences.

My Instruments

  • Moog Etherwave Pro (serial #0092) designed by Bob Moog and modified for improved volume response by Thierry Frenkel, used as a primary instrument.

  • Moog Etherwave Standard, modified by Thierry Frenkel for improved pitch response, used as a demonstration and backup instrument.

  • Big Briar 91A theremin (serial #1027) designed by Bob Moog, used for period and theatrical performances.

  • Matryomin, designed by Masami Takeuchi (a portable theremin concealed inside a matryoshka, a Russian doll).