A brief history of the theremin

The theremin permeates most traditions of music now, in both the classical realm via interpreters like Lydia Kavina, and in a contemporary sense, by (among others) Pamelia Kurstin with her band, Barbez, both appearing at the EtherMusic festival this week.

To understand the rich heritage behind this wondrous invention, one must return to a different time, when a Russian physicist named Lev Termen created an instrument playable without being touched.

Termen invented the theremin in 1919 (his name was later changed to Leon Theremin), during his Russian government-sponsored research into proximity sensors.

The story of the man Theremin expands the mysterious feel surrounding this otherworldly apparatus. Theremin’s invention fell close to the outbreak of the Russian civil war, so it happened that he later demonstrated it personally to Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, who was impressed enough with the device to take lessons himself, and commissioned 600 theremins for distribution in the Soviet Union. Lenin sent Theremin around the world to demonstrate this example of the latest Soviet technology, which signaled the birth of electronic music. Theremin toured Europe successfully, ending up in America, and patented his invention in 1928.

The initial release of the instrument was not a commercial success, but the Russian-born Clara Rockmore, grand dame of the theremin, created wide acclaim for this music, often working with esteemed American actor and vocalist Paul Robeson. Soviet agents later kidnapped Theremin in New York, returning him to the U.S.S.R., where he was forced to work in a sharashka, a type of research lab in the Gulag labor camp system. He didn’t return to America until 1991.

Notwithstanding the few enthusiasts who could pay the exorbitant price for these creations, the public’s interest in the theremin dwindled. But a development by an American experimenter led to easy access for all. Future synthesizer perfecter Robert Moog began building theremins in the 1950s, eventually developing a home-assembly kit for customers to build their own. The Moog Music company, based here in Asheville, is the largest manufacturer of theremins in the world.

The theremin’s haunting vibrato became more familiar to the general public in early sci-fi movies like Forbidden Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still, and in popular music — the Beach Boys’ hit song “Good Vibrations” being the most obvious example. (Moog custom-built a slide-controlled oscillator for Brian Wilson for the group’s live performances.) Many contemporary rock musicians continued to use the theremin through the years to present day, including ’60s psychedelic group Lothar and the Hand People, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, ’90s blues-punk revivalists Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and veteran novelty rockers the Flaming Lips.

— Chris Toenes

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