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When you think of electronic music, it conjures up images of big beats, layered synths and auto tune heaped on with an oversized ladle, but it all had to start somewhere.
One of the first instruments to make controlled noise out of volts was the Theremin in 1920 – and you didn’t even have to touch it to hear how ground-breaking it was…
Back in the USSR…
The story starts in Saint Petersburg in the Russian Empire. A child genius, Lev Sergeyevich Termen was born. He later became known as Léon Theremin, presumably for two reasons:
- Men with acute e’s in their names are always a hit with the ladies
- He invented an instrument he called the “Theremin”
Incidentally, he also invented “interlacing” – a technique of improving the quality of video signals (which has been used in TVs the world over) and the eerily named “The Thing” – basically a bugging device used by spies. Ol’ Léon knew how to impress!
In fact, he managed to impress Lenin so much that he was able to go on tour around the world to show off his technological masterpiece with the haunting sound, in an effort to impress everyone with how advance the latest soviet technology was.
The instrument struck a chord (well, a single note – Theremins can’t make chords) with sci-fi film producers, and they became forever associated with badly-piloted UFOs in old movies. The spooky sound of the Theremin is sure to have you looking for the DVD of “The Day the Earth Stood Still”.
So how does it work?
I suppose now would be a good time for a quick explanation – the Theremin works by using two hands – one controlling pitch and the other controlling volume. The closer the hands are to the two metal antennas, the higher the pitch and the lower the volume respectively.
This means that technically, the player never has to touch the instrument in order to be able to be an expert at it!
Back to the story…
Theremin’s invention did not prove a commercial success, but it amazed audiences and built up a niche following, which was maintained throughout the 20th century, through the second world war and eventually an enthusiast who built Theremins as a high-school student went on to invent a revolutionary synthesizer. You may have heard of the guy – does the name “Robert Moog” ring any bells?
But yes, the popularity of the instrument remained underground (as did Léon Theremin, in a prison camp in Siberia) but resurfaced when in the mid 90s, a film called “Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey” brought it back into the eye of the mainstream and since then it has been used by all and sundry, from Bill Bailey to Portishead.
And that brings us to now – the Theremin has enjoyed another resurgence in popularity thanks to YouTube, with millions upon millions of views on pieces played by Theremin players. The instrument still has a hardcore group of enthusiasts who advocate building your own instrument, though they are often marketed as toys just as often as real instruments.
So I guess there’s one thing we’ve learned from the history of the instrument – you can’t touch the theremin when it comes to making haunting electronic music!