The Theremin… It rocks
A brief history and the impact of the Moog Theremin
4.15.2022 | By Mike Rock
The Theremin? Or The Theremin!
You’ll likely get one response or the other, with a slight chance of “that creepy sound effects thing you play with your hands in the air?”
If you already know what a Theremin is, you are about to get good news. If you don’t know what a Theremin is, you are about to find out what you’re missing-and like I said, it Rocks.
The Theremin was invented around 1920 by Soviet Russian Scientist Leon Theremin. His creation was probably the first musical instrument that had no “acoustic” ancestors and definitely the first musical instrument that requires no physical contact. Leon Theremin brought his invention to America in 1928, where he stunned audiences with the sounds (and sights) of a machine played by an invisible force. Remember- 1928 is before the end of the silent movie era. It’s easy to understand why some onlookers suspected “black magic” or comedic trickery at work. Today’s Theremin players continue to draw looks of disbelief, smiles, and instantly capture the attention of the unfamiliar. Despite being 100 years old, the Theremin still sounds and looks otherworldly, and never fails to capture the imagination.
There must be something in the air...
Playing the original open circuit Theremin makes the performer appear something of a Snake-Charmer, or Maestro of an invisible Orchestra. Both arms and hands move back and forth through the air, without touching a thing. The player's subtle (or drastic) hand movements shape the melody, articulation, and dynamic response from the “thin air” between the player and the instrument's antennas. You can actually see hand vibrato applied to what looks like an invisible Cello or transparent Trombone slide.
The right-hand controls pitch (frequency): The closer your hand moves to the antenna, the higher the note. The left-hand controls the volume (amplitude). The closer you move to the loop-shaped volume antenna, the softer the volume. The instrument itself comes to life when approached by the player, who completes the circuit by serving as the grounding element. The electrical schematic is simple, elegant, and easy to build. The Theremin even looks easy to play. The hard part is playing it, without sounding like an Ether Wave that slipped on a banana peel.
Playing the Theremin
For the sake of comparison, imagine trying to play a melody on a lap steel guitar that has only one string, that never stops sustaining. The pitch hand needs to have the most subtle accuracy and steady control to produce a true pitch. Hand placement that’s only a millimeter shy of perfection is the difference between a beautifully soulful melody and something that sounds like someone set off a siren or stepped sat on a cat. The volume hand does provide a dynamic range, but more importantly, it’s the only way to articulate and dampen each note. In other words, it’s the only way to put a space between the notes and phrases that allow the melody to breathe.
Early Use of the Theremin
Initially, the Theremin was embraced by Orchestral music instrumentalists like noted violinist Clara Rockmore, and the New School of “modernistic” 20th Century composers the likes of Shostakovich-Oh yes, Ladies and Gents-the Theremin is no electronic gimmick. Though difficult to play with precision, the Theremin is a very legitimate musical instrument, capable of extreme expressiveness, in the right “hands”.
The inventor, Leon Theremin
Leon Theremin (Pictured) is either taking himself very seriously or just about to be taken away by the CIA or KGB (but that’s a completely different story). Leon Theremin was a very gifted electrical engineer and an accomplished cellist, but it was Clara Rockmore that truly became the first master of the Theremin.
the gifted champion of the Theremin
Clara Rockmore is probably the greatest Theremin player who ever lived. After an accident limited motion in her bow hand, the gifted violinist found a way to return to musical performance, thanks to the Theremin. Rockmore transposed violin and cello melodies from well-loved Baroque/Classical/Romantic era symphonic melodies for the Theremin. More than anyone else, Clara Rockwell provided conservatory level legitimacy and inspiration to future generations. Bob Moog even named his flagship Theremin “Claravox” after the gifted champion of the Theremin.
A young electrical genius from Flushing, Queens
Bob Moog loved music but wasn’t highly motivated to play music (possibly because his parents made him take Harp lessons?). The Theremin and Theremin music is something Moog loved his entire life. The only “instrument” he liked to handle is the soldering gun. Growing up in the age of the transistor must have felt like a gift from the Heavens for young Moog, who developed a strong motivation to learn anything he could about electronics. In 1949, by the age of 14, Bob Moog already built his first Theremin. All the young genius needed was a schematic he found in a home electronics projects magazine, and some electrical components he already had to support his hobby. Moog was floored by the simple elegance of Leon Theremin’s design circuitry. The young man improved the performance of the “left hand” volume antenna, making staccato sounds (notes with a sharp attack) possible. While still in School, Moog sold his upgraded version of Leon Theremins device via mail order as an electronics kit or a completed instrument.
Bob Moog once described himself as “someone who builds tools for others to use”. Perhaps a bit of an understatement, coming from the man who replaced punch cards with a Piano Keyboard controller for the synth, the pitch wheel, envelope note shaping, and the first portable synth, aka the world-famous “Mini Moog” in 1970.
Bob Moog drew inspiration for many of his breakthrough designs from the Theremin and maintained a love for the instrument, from an electrical and musical perspective, his whole life long.
Despite being roundly thought of as the man who delivered the first practical synthesizer to musicians of the world, Bob Moog reported his fondest personal accomplishments to include recording, and refining the Theremin for Clara Rockmore, and meeting Leon Theremin.
Gort! Klaatu Barada Nikto: The Theremin in Pop Culture
Leon Theremin did get taken back to Moscow by the KGB in 1938. World War II came and went, leaving the Theremin lost in the shuffle. It was a difficult instrument to play (let alone master), had no central production hub (aside from the few RCA built), and few “Conservatory” level players to expand the popularity of the interesting but far out electronic instrument. By the 1950’s The Theremin was reduced to a novelty sound-effects tool in Hollywood, much to the distaste of the few serious Theremin players.
Coaxing out its eerie, otherworldly voice was easy enough for any prop man to accomplish, making the Theremin a natural choice for Horror and Sci-Fi movie soundtracks of the 50s and 60s. Oddly enough, movies like “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and any number of Ed Wood and Roger Corman “B” movies helped revitalize the Theremin, as much as a new generation of musically adventurous players and composers (like John Cage).
A young musical genius from Pasadena, California
The Beach Boys were at the top of their game in 1965 when Brian Wilson surprised the band and fans when he announced he was no longer going to be a part of the Beach Boys' touring band. Wilson needed all the time he could get to write and produce the best possible material he could muster (and to have a sandbox added to his bedroom décor).
If the Beach Boys were going to keep pace with the Beatles, songs about High School pride, Surfing, Wooden Station Wagons, and big block hot-rod engines had to come to an end (although the ‘409 is still “real fine”). Brian Wilson finished work on the Beach Boy’s legendary “Pet Sounds” album in the spring of 1966. No expense was spared on the Phil Spector style wall of sound production, L.A’s finest session players, and exotic instrumentation. Orchestral instruments from strings, horns, and flutes to Timpani drums separate Pet Sounds from the Beach Boy’s previous albums, and Rock and Roll in general.
The entire album is brimming with “firsts” in the world of Rock and Roll, including the first use of the Theremin in pop music. The Track “I just Wasn’t Made for These Times” incorporates the first Pop/Rock use of the Theremin.
Pop/Rock/Indy/R&B and the Theremin
The Theremin has never reached the dizzying pinnacle of success of the Synthesizer/keyboard, Guitar, Electric bass, or Drum Machines in modern popular music, but it does pop up from time to time. When it does, it's memorable-In no particular order, here are some tracks from the past 50 years, that feature the amazing Theremin...
Led Zeppelin "Whole Lotta Love"
Led Zeppelin needs no introduction, but sometimes the Theremin does. Zeppelin's leader and guitar hero Jimmy Page’s stage show can be as flashy as his playing. Using a Theremin just out of sight adds to the Page dynamic. During the breakdown part of the explosive Rock and Roll classic, Page waves his Right hand in the air, summoning the eerie sound of the Theremin. When played live, Page’s Theremin is run through a distorted 100-watt Univox head and 6x12 cab. Page looks like a mad Wizard commanding an unearthly screeching beast, as he tweaks the controls of his tape-driven echoplex, with his left hand, and pitch with his open right hand. While not particularly melodic, it’s a memorable part of Rock History.
The White Stripes "Little People"
White Stripes alternative army of two used the Theremin on “Little People”. Jack White got a Theremin demo from Jimmy Page himself, in the Rock Guitar documentary “This Might Get Loud”, featuring White, The Edge, and Page.
The Beach Boys "Good Vibrations"
Brian Wilson first heard the exotic instrument watching “The Day the Earth Stood Still”. Reportedly, it frightened him. -not so much the sound, but the fact that “vibrations” are in the air around us at all times. Brian’s mom reminded him most are “Good Vibrations”. The Beach Boys “Good Vibrations” 45 was released in the winter of 1966, right after Pet Sounds. The song was originally intended for use in the abandoned “Smile” sessions. Good Vibrations was the most expensive song ever recorded at the time of its release, and still stands as the most famous use of the Theremin.
The Pixies "Velouria"
The Pixies use a Theremin to give a truly spacey vibe to the already far out love song, about a girl (or creature) named “Velouria”
Charles Bradley "Confusion"
Probably the funkiest song to ever use make use of the Theremin. Check out the Charles Bradley on this James Brown-inspired song track, “Confusion”.
The Rolling Stones "2000 Light Years from Home"
The Rolling Stones Psychedelic Magnus Opus “Their Satanic Majesties Request” album featured the Mellotron, Theremin, and Keef with a Wizards hat.
Over the years, bands from every style and generation rediscover the magic of the Theremin. Alongside the lush harmonies of the Beach Boys, experimental madness of Captain Beefheart, progressive kings Rush, heavy metal rockers Tesla, post-punk giants The Pixies, or the moody melodies of Garbage, the Theremin awaits its next artist to inspire.
Moog has continued to improve and tweak Leon Theremins' invention, while staying faithful to the original design. Built-in FX, Midi connectivity, and the pitch correcting Moog Theremini make playing the Theremin a little easier, and it can sound like anything you can imagine, from playful to serious, and any mix of both:
East truly collides with “West” as The Spaghetti western meets with the Russian invention. It’s probably safe to say that Leon Theremin, Bob Moog, Clara Rockmore, and Ennio Morricone would all stand in ovation for Theremin master Carolina Eyck’s version of “The Ecstasy of Gold” -The climax of the epic “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”
As long as artists and audiences continue to “discover” the Theremin and manufacturers like Moog continue to innovate, the Theremin will keep swooping in and delighting you when it's least expected.
Oh yes…. What became of Leon Theremin?
Theremin was allowed to return to the USA after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At 91 years of age Leon Theremin, Clara Rockmore, and Bob Moog all united in the same room, for the very first time. Who knows what’s next?
Check out the new Moog Etherwave Theremin at Alto Music