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, the 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 1930s, Leon enchanted concert-going orchestras 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 synthesiser, Robert Moog, cited Leon Theremin as one of his greatest influences.
My main instrument is an Etherwave Pro built by Moog Music. As a backup instrument, I use a Moog Etherwave Standard. Both of these instruments have been fitted with custom modifications designed by Thierry Frenkel, to improve their volume and pitch responses respectively. I also have a Matryomin, a small theremin concealed inside a Russian doll.