Theremin – The First Electronic Instrument

Way back in about 1919, a somewhat strange Russian by the name of Lev Termin invented what I am sure had to have been the first purely electronic musical instrument when he created an instrument he called the Termin. He moved quite shortly after this to the USA, where he changed his name to  Leon […]

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Way back in about 1919, a somewhat strange Russian by the name of Lev Termin invented what I am sure had to have been the first purely electronic musical instrument when he created an instrument he called the Termin.

He moved quite shortly after this to the USA, where he changed his name to  Leon Theremin for some reason, and his invention was thereafter always known as the Theremin.

What is a Theremin?

Well I have found a good and detailed discussion online all about the Theremin, and it describes it at some length.  So here I shall simply give you the brief description, and if you are seriously interested in this instrument, you will find a link to that website at the end of this post.

It consists of a box-like body with two antennas: one is a straight vertical rod which controls the pitch (usually on the right for right-handed players), the other is a horizontal loop (usually on the left) shaped somewhat like a cane handle which controls the volume. The pitch and volume of the note are controlled by the distance of the hands from the antennas which generate an electromagnetic field.

So, now you know the essential essence of the Theremin, next thing is, what does it actually sound like?   To answer this question I have found an old bit of film in which Theremin himself, in scratchy Russian, describes and demonstrates his instrument.

For those of you who do not speak Russian, here is an English speaker demonstrating it for you…..

OK, so now we know what it sounds like, and more or less how it works and how to play it as well, so what does it sound like when used as an instrument to play music with?   Well obviously it sounds more than a little ethereal, and spacey as well – but it does have a sort of haunting quality I find.

To demonstrate, here it is being used as a serious musical instrument.  There is a fair bit of getting the other electronic instruments going properly before he gets to work on the Theremin, but once he does, you will see what an elegant and intriguing sound it makes.

Obviously it has also been used for rock music – rock musicians are like moths to a flame when it comes to electronic gizmos – many years ago when I was a lighting roadie, and had to endure a 6 month tour with Black Sabbath, someone had given Ozzie Osbourne a Moog Synthesizer, which he loved dearly, but had absolutely no idea how to play..    So his guitar roadie had to put pieces of paper onto the keys, each one with a number on it, so he knew the correct order to press each key…   Ho hum, the joys of Heavy Metal bands.

Anyhow, all that to one side, here is a rock musician who could actually play his instruments..

So that is how it can sound when simply enjoyed in a showroom….  And as a ¨real¨ musical instrument?   Well here is a bit of Bach played on a Theremin to show you how it copes with that sort of music.

By the way, this young man has so much feeling and subtilty, beautiful rendition…..

So, there you have it, a very curious and ethereal sounding instrument, which can create an amazingly peaceful and gentle feeling…

However, as always, there are strange people in the world who will take something such as this beautiful and spiritual instrument, and make it totally off the wall in some way, and I suspect gathering some 160 japanese women together, giving them theremins concealed in Russian matryoshka doll and asking them to play Beethoven´s 9th symphony is probably as weird as it gets.

See?

So here is that link I promised you, where you can learn everything you could possibly want to know about the Theremin.

http://www.hoge-theremin.com/

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