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Sound of Mystery: The Theremin

This article was written by Andrew Honigman
posted under

In the grand ballroom of an elegant New York hotel, an elite and learned crowd is gathered in anticipation around a wooden cabinet from which extend two shiny antennas. A well-dressed gentleman enters, striking a pose at the box like a conductor directing an invisible orchestra. As if in response, a startling, but oddly beautiful hum emanates from the diamond-shaped frame mounted above the cabinet. The sound is something like the wordless singing of a richly harmonic human voice-or the musical saw of a god. The audience sits in wonder as this “magician” draws music out of the air, his movements instantly becoming melody.

Such was the scene in 1928 as inventor Leon Theremin (born Lev Sergeyevich Termen in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1896) demonstrated his new musical instrument, the “Aetherphon” or “Thereminvox” to an amazed group of scientists, musicians, and New York socialites. This jazz-age marvel, the godfather of all electronic musical instruments, was especially notable in that the performer plays it entirely without touching.

Beat Frequency Oscillation
The theremin (as it has come to be known) makes use of an electronic concept called “heterodyning,” in which the interplay of two high-frequency signals produces a third, lower-frequency signal. In the case of the theremin, a fixed frequency signal is played off one that varies according to the distance of the player’s hand from the pitch antenna, producing the audible “beat” frequency. It is interesting to note that this idea is similar to that later utilized by George Meek’s Spiricom and other Electronic Voice Phenomena devices, although in these cases it is a disembodied spirit who (in theory) manipulates the variable frequency.

The theremin itself was never used to communicate with the dead. The instrument was initially promoted for use on the classical stage as a sort of futuristic violin. Although a small group of thereminists gave well-received performances throughout the late 1920s and 1930s, the instrument never really caught on as intended-probably due to the tremendous skill needed to exploit its full potential. Playing the theremin well demands the concentration and physical control of a martial arts master. Equally necessary is a well-developed sense of pitch-the player’s only guide in the absence of any familiar physical interface like a fretboard or keys. Every movement instantly becomes sound. Furthermore, playing conditions can be affected by such environmental factors as humidity and the size and shape of the performance space.

One performer who possessed the necessary ability (and then some) was a fellow Russian émigré named Clara Rockmore. Rockmore was absolutely without parallel in her small field. Gifted with perfect pitch and superhuman control, and possessing a fierce dedication to her art, she almost singlehandedly kept Professor Theremin’s original vision alive into the 1990s.


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