Just had my theremin lust reignited by this 3 minute history/build video from G4’s Attack of the Show, via Create Digital Music. Oh man. I’ve been planning to build one of these since a random reference on the Slanky-L* to a theremin sample sent me off in search of just what this weird musical instrument could do.
Turns out the history is just as fascinating as the ghost sound machine’s electronic guts. Here’s an excerpt from the first interview with the Theremin’s inventor, Leon Theremin, after he first emerged from the U.S.S.R. after 51 years of state arrest:
Mattis: When did you first conceive of your instrument?
Theremin: The idea first came to me right after our Revolution, at the beginning of the Bolshevik state. I wanted to invent some kind of an instrument that would not operate mechanically, as does the piano, or the cello and the violin, whose bow movements can be compared to those of a saw. I conceived of an instrument that would created sound without using any mechanical energy, like the conductor of an orchestra. The orchestra plays mechanically, using mechanical energy; the conductor just moves his hands, and his movements have an effect on the music artistry [of the orchestra].
Mattis: Why did you make this instrument?
Theremin: I became interested in effectuating progress in music, so that there would be more [musical] resources. I was not satisfied with the mechanical instruments in existence, of which there were many. They were all built using elementary principles and were not physically well done. I was interested in making a different kind of instrument. And I wanted, of course, to make an apparatus that would be controlled in space, exploiting electrical fields, and that would use little energy. Therefore I transformed electronic [equipment] into a musical instrument that would provide greater resources.
Mattis: What did Lenin think of it, and why did you show it to him?
Theremin: In the Soviet Union at that time everyone was interested in new things, in particular all the new uses of electricity: for agriculture, for mechanical uses, for transport, for communication. And so then, at that time, when everyone was interested in these fields, I decided to create a musical use for electricity. I made a few first apparatuses that were made [based on principles of] the human interference of radio waves in space, at first used in [electronic] security systems, then applied to musical purposes. I made it, and I showed it at that time to the leaders. There was a big electronics conference in Moscow, and I showed my instruments there. It made a big splash. It was written up in the literature and the newspapers, of which we had many at that time, and many doors were opened [for me then] in the Soviet Union. And so Vladimir Il’yich Lenin, the leader of our state, learned that I had shown an interested thing at this conference, and he wanted to get acquainted with it himself. So they asked me to come with my apparatus, with my musical instrument, to his office, to show him. And I did so.
Mattis: What did Lenin think of it?
Theremin: I brought my apparatus and set it up in his large office in the Kremlin. He was not yet there because he was in a meeting. I waited with Fotiva, his secretary, who was a good pianist, a graduate of the conservatory. She said that a little piano would be brought into the office, and that she would accompany me on the music that I would play. So we prepared, and about an hour and a half later Vladimir Il’yich Lenin came with those people with whom he had been in conference in the Kremlin. He was very gracious; I was very pleased to meet him, and then I showed him the signaling system of my instrument, which I played by moving my hands in the air, and which was called at that time the thereminvox. I played a piece [of music]. After I played the piece they applauded, including Vladimir Il’yich [Lenin], who had been watching very attentively during my playing. I played Glinka’s “Skylark”, which he loved very much, and Vladimir Il’yich said, after all this applause, that I should show him, and he would try himself to play it. He stood up, moved to the instrument, stretched his hands out, left and right: right to the pitch and left to the volume. I took his hands from behind and helped him. He started to play “Skylark”. He had a very good ear, and he felt where to move his hands to get the sound: to lower them or to raise them. In the middle of this piece I thought that he could himself, independently, move his hands. So I took my hands off of his, and he completed the whole thing independently, by himself, with great success and with great applause following. He was very happy that he could play on this instrument all by himself.
Read the whole interview here.
A more thorough history can be had in the 1995 documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey. Oddly, I can’t find any video clips of it online, but if you’re dying to see it, I’ll gladly mail you my VHS copy. Just leave a comment and I’ll email you for mailing details.
* remember listservs? remember Soul Coughing? that’s ok.