Also: termenvoks Êtherophon Aetherophon Etherophone thereminvox
Title: Elizabeth Brown - Mirage—Atlantis; Elizabeth Brown, theremin, Ben Verdery, amplified classical guitar played with slide bar. Label: New World Records. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 80751-2. Track: 5.
The theremin is a movement-controlled monophonic analogue synthesizer electrophone invented around 1920 by the Russian physicist and musician Lev Sergeyevich Termen (1896-1993), hereafter rendered in its Anglicized form as Leon Theremin. Often characterized as the first electronic musical instrument, the name “theremin” has come to designate both the original instrument designed and built by Theremin as well as subsequent versions of the instrument that, while still being performed in the same distinctive manner as the original, incorporate different electronics. The theremin pictured and described here is of the latter type, having been designed and released in 2009 (gallery #1 shows the theremin itself, while in gallery #2 it is pictured with a speaker and a set of earphones that are necessary for the instrument to be heard by an audience or the performer). That the performer does not touch the theremin while performing it is the single most defining feature of the instrument. Its sound has an other-worldly quality that is in part a product of the sliding effect heard between consecutive notes in performance. The distinctive musical character of the theremin and its expressive potential interested many performers, composers, arrangers, and audiences in the 1920s and 1930s. A few professional thereminists concertized extensively throughout Europe and the Americas, playing both original and arranged works for the instrument (audio #1 is an example of an arrangement of an existing work) in a wide variety of musical styles from classical to popular. It has been orchestrated into dozens of film and television soundtracks over the past century, and it is still occasionally composed for in works by contemporary composers of academic music (audio #2). Today, it is also found in many university and home electronic music studios, where it can either stand alone as a solo electronic musical instrument or be integrated with other electronic devices for live performance or as a tool for composition.
Theremins, whether the original model or more recent ones such as the Etherwave Plus instrument pictured here, have at their core a rectilinear box, housing the electronics, with two attached antennae (detail #1, from the performer’s perspective).The instrument and attached speaker are both powered by electricity (which is why their power cords are visible in gallery #2). A straight antennae, positioned vertically and attached to the right end wall of the box, is for pitch selection, and a loop-shaped one protrudes horizontally from the left end wall of the box and is used for dynamic/volume control. Movement of the performer’s hands in proximity to these antennae “[alters] the capacitance between the body and the antennae and appropriate circuitry [is used] to produce a radio frequency signal from this. Mixing the signal with a fixed frequency sine wave then [gives] rise to a beat frequency within the audio range” (Campbell et al, p. 443). This signal then must be routed to an amplifier before being transduced electromagnetically into sound waves by a speaker. Electronically, the most significant difference between the original theremin and the model pictured here is found in their oscillators—the original used vacuum-tube oscillators, the more recent instrument solid state circuitry. The control panel for the theremin pictured here (detail #2) is located on the player’s side of the box and allows the performer some filtering and mixing options of the signal and the choice of two output options for linking the instrument to other electronic devices (including the headphones and speaker seen in gallery #2). For detailed information on the electronics of this theremin, follow this link to the Encyclotronic website page for the Etherwave Plus.
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
The box containing the instrument’s electronics is generally situated on top of a table or stand so that its antennae are at a comfortable height for a standing performer; its control panel is on the performer’s side of the box (detail #1). Usually, the straight/vertical antennae for pitch control is controlled with the player’s right hand, with their left hand operating near the loop/horizontal antenna for volume control. However, a performer can choose to stand on the opposite side of the box, therefore reversing the roles their hands play. The theremin is not an easy instrument to play. On the most general level, a higher pitch will result the closer the performer positions their right hand to the pitch antenna, and a lower volume of sound will result from a closer positioning of the left hand to the dynamic antenna. Since there is no feature in the instrument’s design to assist the performer in producing discreet pitches (no keyboard or frets), the thereminist must develop a nuanced sense of communication with the instrument’s antennae—a “touch” without touching—to produce the desired pitch and volume of the sound and any attendant ornamentation (vibrato in particular). Within a range of approximately five octaves that can be produced on the theremins pictured here, the thereminist, through coordinated hand gestures and in response to what they are hearing through the speaker, craft a melodic line that can involve extremely subtle details of pitch inflection and dynamic intensity. Early performers of the instrument, such as Leon Theremin himself and Clara Rockmore (heard in audio #1), were often conservatory-trained string players (Theremin a cellist, Rockmore a violinist), and in a 1954 film of Theremin performing the theremin, his hand gestures are reminiscent of those used by performers of fretless string instruments. The expressive potential of the theremin has tended to be harnessed in two primary ways by musicians and composers: first, to mimic the human voice (many arrangements for the theremin are of highly-expressive classical arias and songs, such as heard on audio #1); and secondly, to create melodies that sound other-worldly, i.e., they unabashedly sound electronically-generated and unconventional (as in audio #2).
[For a fascinating account of Theremin’s life and the intersecting scientific, artistic, capitalist, and communist forces that shaped him and his inventions, see Glinsky 2000.] Theremin first began demonstrating versions of the theremin in 1920, a few years after having earned degrees in physics and music from Petrograd (St. Petersburg) educational institutions. During a Kremlin-sanctioned tour of Europe and the USA in 1927-1928, Theremin began a ten-year residency in New York City during which he took out an American patent for the theremin (1929), RCA began manufacturing the instrument for commercial sale, and he engaged in a number of mostly unsuccessful business ventures around his inventions. In 1938, Theremin was secretly returned to the Soviet Union where he remained under government confinement until 1947 and as a free citizen until his death in 1993. A periodization of the theremin’s century-long history can be summarized as follows: the 1920s and 30s, when the instrument was introduced and assimilated into the musical life of Europe and the Americas, and Theremin continued to develop it and to invent related instruments that inspired other companies to create similar instruments; the 1950s and 60s, during which the American Robert Moog introduced no fewer than five new theremin models to the marketplace; and the 1990s to the present, when a resurgence of interest in the theremin included the incorporation of newer electronics and the production of more than fifteen models by a number of companies, including the Moog Etherwave Plus described here.
Campbell, Murray, Clive Greated, and Arnold Meyers. 2004. Musical Instruments: History, Technology, and Performance of Instruments of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Davies, Hugh. 2000. “Electronic Instruments: Classifications and Mechanisms,” in Hans-Joachim Braun, ed., Music and Technology in the Twentieth Century. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 43-58.
Glinsky, Albert. 2000. Theremin—Ether Music and Espionage. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Montague, Stephen. 2001. “Termen, Lev Sergeyevich [Theremin, Leon].” Grove Music Online, accessed 12/2/19: https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000045834?rskey=9CJ0TA&result=1
“Moog Etherware Plus Theremin.” Page on Encyclotronic Electronic Music Archive website, accessed 12/4.19: https://encyclotronic.com/synthesizers/moog/etherwave-plus-r576/
Orton, Richard (rev. by Hugh Davies). 2001. “Theremin [Termenvoks].” Grove Music Online, accessed 12/2/19: https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000027813?rskey=KPjHXU
________, Hugh Davies, and Ann Beetem Acker. 2014. “Theremin [Termenvoks].” GDMI v.4: 763-764.
Slonikyouth. poster. No date. “Leon Theremin playing his own instrument.” YouTube video post, viewed 12/3/19: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5qf9O6c20o
Region: Eastern Europe
Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)531.2 electrophone--analogue synthesizers and other electronic instruments with solid state circuitry (transistor and/or integrated circuitry) generating and/or processing electric sound signals
Design and Playing Features
Type of electrophone: analogue electronic
Type of oscillator: analogue electronic circuit
Type of pickup: none
Number of voices: monophonic
Primary pitch controller: spatial
MIDI compatible: no
Signal processing devices: analogue