Archive for theremin

Tuning the untouchable

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on February 24, 2010 by artodisiac

It is a shame that I have never ever heard about this magical so to speak instrument in my life. And I consider myself as a curious soundhunter! Anyway, better later than never. For the last couple of days, I am searching the net for a teeny weeny information about theremin. Now I have enough theoretical information waiting to be practiced in my next sound project. I am also thinking about using it as an interactive project for an exhibition on unconscious I am currently working on. I think it is quite an unearthly experience. What fascinated me was its resemblance to unconscious. As dreams reveal whatever lies under your conscious, theremin uncovers this dreamy sound that seems to come out of nowhere. You can not hear, see, or sense anything without it but theremin makes you tune the air and enables you to make the music of your body out of nothing, or at least something invisible. Therefore this makes it very suitable for my project but first, I have to build it through some DIY instructions. Hopefully I will also learn about its fundementals in the sound class.

What is Theremin

Theremin is the only musical instrument you play without touching. It was one of the very first electronic instruments that was invented by a young Russian physicist named Lev Sergeivich Termen (known in the West as Leon Theremin) in October 1920 after the outbreak of the Russian Civil War.

After positive reviews at Moscow electronics conferences, Theremin demonstrated the device to Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. Lenin was so impressed with the device that he began taking lessons for playing it, commissioned six hundred of the instruments for distribution throughout the Soviet Union, and sent Theremin on a trip around the world to demonstrate the latest Soviet technology and the invention of electronic music. After a lengthy tour of Europe, during which time he demonstrated his invention to packed houses, Theremin found his way to the United States, where he patented his invention in 1928.

The theremin is unique among musical instruments in that it is played without physical contact. The musician stands in front of the instrument and moves his or her hands in the proximity of two metal antennas. The distance from one antenna determines frequency (pitch), and the distance from the other controls amplitude (volume). Moving the hand closer to the pitch antenna causes the pitch to raise, and moving the hand closer to the volume loop decreases the volume and eventually silences the instrument. The theremin is tuned by distance not by pitch. Any motion of the body or any solid object in the playing fields will affect the note.

Easy to learn but notoriously difficult to master, theremin performance presents two challenges: reliable control of the instrument’s pitch with no guidance (no keys, valves, frets, or finger-board positions), and minimizing undesired portamento that is inherent in the instrument’s microtonal design.

The theremin was originally used to play classical music, transcriptions and original compositions. Lev Termen and his students performed classics both as solos and ensemble pieces.

In the mid-20s Clara Rockmore, then a young violinist, met him and soon became the greatest player of the theremin. She devised a new technique for the theremin that made possible virtuosic performances and her work and concretizing established the theremin as a serious instrument at the time.

In the popular music realm, Samuel Hoffman mastered the instrument and featured it in specialty big band numbers. Later the theremin was discovered by film composers and was used an integral part of such scores as Spellbound and The Day the Earth Stood Still. But it became type cast as a spooky sound effect and eventually was used non musically in hundreds of B movies.Over the past ten years the theremin has enjoyed a tremendous resurgance and has been popping up in countless rock bands, home made videos, performance pieces and on the sympnonic concert stage. Having the most simple and elegent playing interface of any instrument of the electric age, Leon Theremin’s invention continues to delight and inspire people around the world.