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Theremin: the Russian magical instrument

Monday 10, March 2014, 7:25 pm Red

Lev Sergeyevich Termen was a Russian inventor born in 1896 in St. Petersburg, who could have gone down in history as the inventor of the first television set or the first system using radio frequencies. But his name will be forever linked to one of the most curious musical instruments in history: the theremin.

In 1920 when Lev Thermen invented an instrument that did not need physical contact to be played, he certainly did not know the impact it would have. The Soviet leader Lenin received Theremen in Moscow to see for himself this new instrument and encouraged him to continue his research in the field of electromagnetism. Lenin was so impressed by this invention, that he asked to build 600 theremins and he even kept one to learn how to play it. Meanwhile, Lev Thermen travelled around the USSR performing with his instrument. Eventually, he went to the U.S. to play. There he changed his name to Leon Theremin, applied for a patent for his invention in 1928 and began the production of his musical instrument.

theremin
Leon Theremin playing his great invention

But how does a theremin work?

A theremin uses waves the same way a radio set does. You may notice that if you approach your hands to a radio antenna, you can cause some minor interference. With this idea in mind, Thermen designed his instrument providing it with two antennas. One is straight and vertical and controls the pitch: the closer we place our hand to this antenna, the higher the pitch. The second antenna has a more peculiar shape. It is like a hoop or a handle at one side of the instrument. This antenna controls de volume: the closer we place our hand to this second antenna, the lower the volume is. In this link you will see Leon Theremin in person playing his instrument.

Who would want to use a theremin?

For example, Robert Moog was very interested in learning more about this instrument. His name is not very popular, but the musical instrument he later invented is well known: the synthesizer. Moog and Theremin met and he saw the possibilities of this instrument. He later adapted and transformed it into the modern synthesizers. Apart from Moog, more people saw the potential of the theremin. Due to its peculiar sound between the cello and the human voice, it was used in many B movies, such as "The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951). Also great film directors used this instrument in their films. For example, we can hear the theremin in "Spellbound" (1945) by Alfred Hitchcock or "The Thing from Another World" (1951) by Howard Hawks. But the person who played the theremin at its best was the Lithuanian musician Clara Rockmore who devoted her career to this instrument, and performed around the world with it. And coming back to cinema and tv, although many people think that the main theme from the tv show “Star Trek” is played with a theremin, it actually is a soprano that mimics the sound of this instrument.

theremin
A modern Moog theremin

The theremin today.

Nowadays the theremin is still played and is relatively popular. Robert Moog 's company has exclusive worldwide rights for the production of theremins. Also, it is still used to give an air of mystery in many films: Existenz, The Machinist, Ed Wood, Hellboy... also, many renowned artists use it or used it at some point in their career: Led Zeppelin, Portishead, Pink Floyd, Beach Boys, Rolling Stones... but perhaps the best known theremin player nowadays is the French composer Jean Michel Jarre.

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