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The instrument that lets you play radio waves.
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The OG of electronic music
The story of the theremin and its inventor has it all: drama, suspense, geopolitics, and, above all, tragedy. It’s a wonder Hollywood hasn’t yet made a movie about it.
Invented by (and named for) Soviet scientist Léon Theremin in 1920, the theremin is one of the world’s weirdest instruments. Your body doesn’t actually come into contact with it when you play it, and the level of difficulty has prevented the theremin from becoming a mainstream musical instrument. Its signature ghostly wail though, has earned it a devout cult following—and some cameo appearances in cinema and popular music, including in The Day the Earth Stood Still and “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin.
Theremin’s life was profoundly sad, but the bizarre, nearly magic instrument that bears his name lives on.
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1920: Léon Theremin, a Soviet engineer and physicist, invents the theremin instrument while researching proximity sensors for the government.
1922: Vladimir Lenin sends Theremin around the new Soviet Union to demonstrate his device as “propaganda for electrification.”
1928: Theremin moves to the US, where he sells the patent for the instrument to RCA for $100,000. The difficult-to-play “thereminvox” (or “etherphone”) is not a commercial success, but it fascinates audiences.
1938: Theremin leaves the US under mysterious circumstances, including rumors of a kidnapping by Soviet agents. He’s not seen again in America until 1991. In the interim, Theremin is sent to a sharaska—a secret Soviet lab inside of a gulag camp—and forced to do research for the NKVD, the predecessor to the KGB.
1954: Robert Moog, best known as the inventor of the Moog synthesizer, begins his career by selling theremin kits out of his home in Queens, New York, helping to revitalize interest in the instrument.
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Explain it like I’m 5!
A theremin is a box with two antennas, which control pitch and volume. It’s notoriously difficult to play well—the thereminist’s hands are suspended in mid-air, without any keys, strings, or frets for guidance, or any tactile feedback whatsoever.
Oscillators connected to the pitch antenna create weak, low-frequency radio waves, which flow into the theremin player. The hand acts as a capacitor plate, regulating the flow of electricity through the circuit. That frequency is too high to hear, so the signal is heterodyned. The changing signal created by the hand and antenna is combined with a fixed signal around the same frequency, and a new signal representing the difference between the two is what’s actually fed into the amplifier. The volume antenna works basically the same way.
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Think of a singer that has a basso, mezzo, soprano, and high soprano voice that encompasses all the musical ranges. Now this is something that you cannot find in any other instrument…. There are certain nuances and qualities that you can obtain because you don’t have anything in your hand. It really comes out of the air…. There is no instrument between you and the music. Sure, there is a theremin standing there, but you’re in the electromagnetic field.
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The theremin generates sounds in a range familiar to music listeners. Its lows sound like a cello—which Theremin played—its midrange like the human voice with a dramatic vibrato.
First Man, the 2018 drama about Neil Armstrong and the first moon landing, uses it as a stand-in for Armstrong’s grief, of which the stoic Armstrong had his share.
In one scene on the Moon, he drops a bracelet that belonged to his deceased two-year-old daughter Karen into the shadowed depths of a crater. As he does so, the theremin quietly cries in the background. “There was something about the theremin that seemed to convey that grief that spanned across the cosmos, director Damien Chazelle said. “It obviously makes you think of space, but it also has those qualities of the human voice.”
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In 1945, Theremin also invented “The Thing,” an infamous covert listening device that was used by the Soviets to bug the office of the US ambassador to the USSR. It was accidentally discovered by a British radio operator seven years later.
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In a 2018 appearance on The Graham Norton Show to promote First Man, Ryan Gosling talked about how the theremin became an important personal connection to the famed US astronaut. Norton brought out an actual theremin, and Lady Gaga, who was also a guest that night, volunteered to test it out. Watch Gosling and Bradley Cooper stare mesmerized as she learns how to play the theremin.
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Persons of interest
Clara Rockmore: The first virtuoso theremin player, Rockmore switched to the instrument from violin after developing arthritis; late in life she wrote a guide to the theremin and later was honored with a Google Doodle in 2016.
Pamelia Stickney: A contemporary theremin expert who’s played with the likes of Bela Fleck and David Byrne; her 2002 TED Talk includes her playing accompaniments to American standards and demonstrating her “walking bass” technique.
Lydia Kavina: Theremin’s grand-niece, Lydia Kavina, is a performer and composer with several albums and appearances on the soundtracks of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood and David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ; she also has a TED Talk.
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For your listening pleasure
The theremin has been used in films from Ghostbusters to Hellboy. Here’s a small sampling of theremin music across film, rock music, and symphonies.