Soviet Inventor Léon Theremin Shows Off the Theremin, the Early Electronic Instrument That Could Be Played Without Being Touched (1954)

You know the sound of the theremin, that weird, war­bly whine that sig­nals mys­tery, dan­ger, and oth­er­world­ly por­tent in many clas­sic sci-fi films. It has the dis­tinc­tion of being not only the very first elec­tron­ic instru­ment but also the only instru­ment in his­to­ry one plays with­out ever touch­ing any part of it. Instead, the theremin play­er makes hand motions, like the con­duc­tor of an invis­i­ble choir, and the device sings. You can see this your­self above, as the instrument’s inven­tor, Léon Theremin, demon­strates his therem­invox, as he called it at the time, in 1954. Speak­ing in Russ­ian, with Eng­lish sub­ti­tles, Theremin describes how the “instru­ment of a singing-voice kind” works “by means of influ­enc­ing an elec­tro­mag­net­ic field.”

Theremin orig­i­nal­ly invent­ed the instru­ment in 1919 and called it the Aether­phone. He demon­strat­ed it for Vladimir Lenin in 1922, and its futur­is­tic sound and design made quite an impres­sion on the ail­ing com­mu­nist leader. Theremin then brought the device to Europe (see a silent news­reel demon­stra­tion here) and to the U.S. in 1927, where he debuted it at the Plaza Hotel and where clas­si­cal vio­lin­ist Clara Rock­more, soon to become the most devot­ed pro­po­nent and play­er of the theremin, first heard it.

Although many peo­ple thought of Theremin’s inven­tion as a nov­el­ty, Rock­more deter­mined that it would be tak­en seri­ous­ly. She appren­ticed her­self to Theremin, mas­tered the instru­ment, and adapt­ed and record­ed many a clas­si­cal com­po­si­tion, like Tchaikovsky’s “Berceuse,” above. More than any­one else, Rock­more made the theremin sing as its inven­tor intend­ed.

The ori­gin sto­ry of the theremin, like so many inven­tion sto­ries, involves a hap­py acci­dent in the lab­o­ra­to­ry. Just above, Albert Glin­sky, author of the his­to­ry Theremin: Ether Music and Espi­onage, describes how Theremin inad­ver­tent­ly cre­at­ed his new instru­ment while devis­ing an audi­ble tech­nique for mea­sur­ing the den­si­ty of gas­es in a chem­istry lab. The first iter­a­tion of the instru­ment had a foot ped­al, but Theremin wise­ly decid­ed, Glin­sky says, that “it would be so much more intrigu­ing to have the hands pure­ly in the air,” manip­u­lat­ing the sound from seem­ing­ly nowhere. Although there are no frets or strings or keys, no bow, slide, or oth­er phys­i­cal means of chang­ing the theremin’s pitch, its oper­a­tion nonethe­less requires train­ing and pre­ci­sion just like any oth­er musi­cal instru­ment. If you’re inter­est­ed in learn­ing the basics, check out the tuto­r­i­al below with therem­i­nist Lydia Kav­ina, play­ing a ‘there­ami­ni’ designed by syn­the­siz­er pio­neer Moog.

In his day, Theremin lived on the cut­ting edge of sci­en­tif­ic and musi­cal inno­va­tion, and he hoped to see his instru­ment inte­grat­ed into the world of dance. While work­ing with the Amer­i­can Negro Bal­let Com­pa­ny in the 1930s, the inven­tor fell in love with and mar­ried a young African-Amer­i­can dancer named Lavinia Williams. He was sub­se­quent­ly ostra­cized from his social cir­cle, then he either abrupt­ly picked up and left the U.S. for the Sovi­et Union in 1938 or, more like­ly, as Lavinia alleged, he was kid­napped from his stu­dio and whisked away. What­ev­er the case, Theremin end­ed up in a Gulag lab­o­ra­to­ry called a sha­ras­ka, design­ing lis­ten­ing devices for the Sovi­et Union. There­after, he worked for the KGB, then became a pro­fes­sor of physics at Moscow State Uni­ver­si­ty.

Theremin nev­er gave up on his elec­tron­ic instru­ments, invent­ing an elec­tron­ic cel­lo and vari­a­tions on his theremin dur­ing a 10-year stint at the Moscow Con­ser­va­to­ry of Music. He gave his final theramin demon­stra­tion in the year of his death, 1993, at age 97. (See him play­ing above in 1987 with his third wife Natalia.) To learn much more about the inventor’s fas­ci­nat­ing life sto­ry, be sure to see Steven M. Martin’s 1993 doc­u­men­tary Theremin: An Elec­tron­ic Odyssey.

And if you’re intrigued enough, you can buy your very own Theremin made by Moog.

*Note: an ear­li­er ver­sion of this post stat­ed that a theremin was used in the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibra­tions” and the orig­i­nal Dr. Who theme. While a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion in both cas­es, it appears that nei­ther piece of music con­tains the instru­ment but rather both used oth­er instru­ments and tech­niques to obtain a sim­i­lar sound. 

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Meet Delia Der­byshire, the Dr. Who Com­pos­er Who Almost Turned The Bea­t­les’ “Yes­ter­day” Into Ear­ly Elec­tron­i­ca

Rick Wake­man Tells the Sto­ry of the Mel­lotron, the Odd­ball Pro­to-Syn­the­siz­er Pio­neered by the Bea­t­les

Thomas Dol­by Explains How a Syn­the­siz­er Works on a Jim Hen­son Kids Show (1989)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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