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Explained: What is Theremin, the instrument that turned 100 years old in 2020?

The Theremin is one of the most intriguing inventions ever and has revolutionised music by being the predecessor of the modern synthesiser, among others.

theremin, theremin instrument, theremin musical instrument, theremin kit, Léon Theremin, indian express explainedA Moog Etherwave, assembled from a theremin kit. (Source: Hutschi/Wikimedia Commons)

When radio waves were still a new phenomenon in technology, a young scientist was experimenting with it in his laboratory at the Physical Technical Institute in Saint Petersburg — then called Petrograd — when he noted that the apparatus made strange sounds if he moved his hands around it. Lev Sergeyevich Termen — who later became famous by the name Léon Theremin — was also a classical musician, trained in the cello, and the strange observations piqued his interest. He “played” with the sounds for a while and concluded that he had created a new musical equipment, one that was played without touching. It was the world’s first electronic instrument, called the Theremin.

The Theremin turned 100-years-old this year. It is one of the most intriguing inventions ever and revolutionised music by being the predecessor of the modern synthesiser, among others. Its history is tied to the world war, the prisons of Siberia and Hollywood films of the 20th century. Nonetheless, only a small group of musicians across the world knows of the Theremin and even fewer plays it.

How do you play the Theremin?

The Theremin has a vertical antenna and a looped antennae, and players modulate the electromagnetic fields by moving their hands and fingers around these in space. If you move around the vertical antenna, you could increase or decrease the tone. The looped antenna controls the volume. A German musician, Carolina Eyck, says, “You can play notes in the air. You can grab notes from anywhere in space. I like to call that the free space and I use my whole body to move in that space.” This is also the reason that the instrument seems difficult to master and there are only a few Theremin maestros in the world. According to the BBC, “No other instrument requires such control of the body by a performer. There is no keyboard or fret board for reference in playing notes. As well as fine spatial perception, a player needs a brilliant ear to hit specific notes. They need to combine relaxed body movements with intense mental focus.” 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram

Is the Theremin performed in mainstream venues?

Eyck performed the Theremin at the Berlin City Parliament on October 1, literally creating music from thin air. The creator of this musical device, Léon Theremin, himself performed it before Vladimir Lenin at the Kremlin in 1922 and for Albert Einstein in Berlin in 1927. Eyck received the Recording of the Year Award in Germany for her 2014 concert recording of Theremin Concerto Eight Seasons while Icelandic musician Hekla Magnúsdóttir released her latest theremin and voice album in 2020, titled Sprungur. In Hollywood, the instrument has featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) and Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), among others.

What happened to the creator of the Theremin?

Léon Theremin was a genius who never stopped experimenting. He is credited with a variety of discoveries, from the early drum machines to equipment for the US airplanes. But, the World War II clouds were gathering and the scientist was taken back from the US, where he was living, to Russia by the KGB in 1938. In one of Stalin’s purges, he was sent to a prison for scientists in Siberia and stayed there till 1947. One of his other famous inventions was a bugging device, one of which, placed in the office of the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, was uncovered only seven years later.

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First published on: 02-12-2020 at 17:40 IST
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