October 15, 2017

Theremin — The Forgotten “Instrument”

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Every Halloween avid horror film fans trot out the horror classics. For many people that is the only exposure they have ever had to a device known as the Theremin. That eerie music that you hear as part of the soundtrack for many old spooky or science fiction motion pictures like “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Spellbound” used this odd instrument.

A Russian physicist named Lev Termen invented this most unusual sounding instrument in 1919 and brought it with him to the US with big dreams of making it a huge success. That never really happened and Lev ended being forced back to Russia with nothing to show for his efforts.

Aside from the sound that emanates from its strange body, the thing that makes the instrument so different is that you don’t even have to touch it to play it. There are two antennas that protrude from the theremin - one controlling pitch, and the other controlling volume. As a hand approaches the vertical antenna, the pitch gets higher. Approaching the horizontal antenna makes the volume softer. While on the surface this sounds easy, the fact is that you have a have a great sense of pitch in order to “control” the sound you are making.

The inventor had thought that classical music could be played with his invention. There were different shapes and sizes made to do so. That never did catch on. If it were not for Rock music, the Theremin might have become part of odd film history.

Instead, in 1966 a group called Lothar and the Hand People decided to use it as the center piece of their show. It was such a novelty in Rock music that they were asked to tour the US playing all of the famous Rock venues of the time. The group never achieved great success or money. During their appearance here in Philadelphia the band didn’t have enough money to stay in a hotel and ended up sleeping on the living room floor of my apartment. The closest thing they had to a hit record was a great song called “Machines” which didn’t even use the Theremin.

Many people wrongly point out that the Theremin was used to make the vibrations in the hit song by The Beach Boys “Good Vibrations”. While it sounded like a Theremin, it was just an attempt to make that sound that was done with studio effects.

Other Rock groups like Captain Beefheart (it really stands out in his song “Electricity”), The Bonzo Dog Band and Led Zeppelin did use the Theremin, but it never became a main instrument. It was just remained a novelty.

After that the Theremin pretty became a part of history. Today the original Theremins are hard to find. There are newer models that are a bit more complex but are still not used frequently.

Speaking of history. A young electric genius by the name of Robert Moog got his start making Theremins. He built theremins long before he invented and built synthesizers. Once he accomplished getting the Moog Synthesizer made, it became a real stable of Rock. In the 1960's, All of a sudden every Rock band HAD to have a synthesizer. It seemed like every song in the 70’s found a way to make this electric wonder be part of their music.

The work that Moog did building Theremins had to have played a part in his ability to create his own invention. His electric device did become a real part of not only Rock and electronic music, but finally made the dream of Lev Termen to have Classical music become more electric in nature a reality. Lev’s intention was to have the entire orchestra be replaced by varies kinds of Theremins. While that never happened, perhaps Lev could take heart in how much his invention influenced music today.

The Moog company still makes some Theremins to this day and it still plays a part in Halloween. You can also get a kit to make your own. If you do there’s theremin Halloween contest currently being held by Moog. For those that may have one, you can submit your video to: http://www.sonicstate.com/news/2017/10/11/moog-announces-2017-halloween-theremin-contest/.


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