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Archive for July 1st, 2010

Playing the Theremin

You’ve heard the sound before.  The electronic soaring, sustained notes, like a singing saw ( I know that’s a reference that has almost no meaning to most of you), that gave many sci-fi films of the 50’s and 60’s their eerie, otherworldly feel.  Think of The Day the Earth Stood Still ( the old one) or the opening credits of the early Star Trek series.  That is the theremin, the only musical instrument played without touching it.  Using a vertical and a horizontal antenna that creates an energy field, the hand moving up and down along the vertical axis creates an interruption that creates the sound, a musical note, and the hand moving along the horizontal axis controls the volume of the note.  It is considered the easiest instrument to play but perhaps the hardest to play well.  I’m still not convinced anyone really plays it well.

It’s one of those things we often just shrug off as another geegaw that comes down the pike and has a short run in the eye of popular culture.  But the theremin and its inventor, Leon Theremin, are an interesting case.

Theremin (1896-1993) was born in Russia and, and as a state scientist for the early Communist Soviet Union worked on many groundbreaking projects there  including an early wireless television , developing the instrument that now bears his name around 1920.   He began giving concerts with the instrument throughout the Soviet Union and soon throughout Europe, creating a sensation wherever he played.  Finally, in 1927, he came to New York with Lenin’s blessing, as a sort of cultural ambassador for the Soviets.

In New York, the sensation of the theremin continued.  He played a landmark concert at Carnegie Hall that made the instrument the must-have item across the country.  RCA purchased the rights and began producing scores of the instruments for home use.  Theremin continued during this time to live comfortably in New York, including a marriage, controversial at the time, to an African-American ballet dancer.  Then, in 1938, he abruptly left the States to return to the Soviet Union.  Some say he was whisked away by the KGB.  Some say he was merely homesick.  Theremin himself claims he left to avoid creditors and tax problems here.  Whatever the case, he ended up serving in in Stalin’s workcamps for eight years and afterwards working under the watchful eye of the state as scientist into the 1960’s.

Perhaps his best known invention other than the theremin instrument is one that is at the center of one of history’s great espionage moments, the Great Seal episode.  In 1945, Soviet Boy Scouts presented our ambassador there, Averill Harriman, with a carved Great Seal of the United States to honor our partnership as allies during the just ended World war II.  It hung for seven years in the Moscow embassy offices until one day a British radio operator discovered he was able to hear conversations on an open radio channel.  A search discovered a cavity in the Great Seal.  In this cavity there was a small membrane attached to a short antenna.  No power source.  No wires. Nothing that emitted radio signals.  It took several months before they figured out that this was a passive listening device, one that only became active when it was exposed to radio waves beamed at it from a remote location.  This made it practically undetectable and brilliant in its simple sophistication.

Theremin finallywas allowed to leave the Soviet Union again in the late 1980’s.  He came to the USA in 1991 under the auspices of a filmmaker, Steven Martin, who later made a documentary, Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey.  He died in 1993, at the age of 97.

So when you hear that wooo-OOOO-aaaa-OOOO of the Theremin, rememerthat there is some history behind it…

Here’s a Trekkie showing off his theremin licks, just to give you a taste of the sound:

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