The Theremin - Rock's Strangest Instrument

August 24, 2015

The Theremin - Rock's Strangest Instrument

There can be no finer sight in the history of rock and roll than skinny, pale, fragile Jimmy Page summoning the devil's music out of thin air with his theremin. Absolutely, totally what rock and roll should be about: showmanship, weird druggy noises, power, theatre, talent, mystery and just a tiny bit of silliness.

The theremin is one of those inventions that sounds like it was dreamed up by stoners after a particularly hefty session. But even better than that - and don't get the FEAR, man, they're not watching us (or are they?) - it was actually born out of experiments by the Russian government!
Those crazy Ruskies were experimenting with movement sensors back around the time of their civil war, and the instrument was invented by a young physicist by the name of Lev Sergeivich Termen (Westernised name: Leon Theremin) in October 1920.

Leon Theremin gets it on Leon Theremin gets it on

He said:"I conceived of an instrument that would create sound without using any mechanical energy, like the conductor of an orchestra. The orchestra plays mechanically, using mechanical energy; the conductor just moves his hands, and his movements have an effect on the music artistry of the orchestra."

It's rather a beautiful concept, when you think about it, the idea of producing music without mechanics. The theremin worked by having two antennas, one controlling volume, the other pitch: oscillators pump out radio waves, the distance between the hand and the machine creates different tones, and volumes.

Theremin showed his new device at a Moscow conference of electrical engineers and it was such a hit that he was instructed to demonstrate it to Lenin! According to Theremin, Lenin "had a very good ear" and got the hang of playing it almost instantly. He ordered 600 (good old centrally planned economy) and sent Theremin around the world to show off this wonderful new thing - for the greater glory of Russia and so on.

Theremin lived in New York for several years, where he befriended and taught Clara Rockmore, who toured around the States for some years playing the theremin and is widely regarded as its consummate exponent.

The splendidly named Clara RockmoreThe splendidly named Clara Rockmore

She often shared a bill with Paul Robeson - the singer, colossus of the civil rights struggle, and actor - he was the first black man to play Othello on Broadway - athlete, trade unionist, movie star...

Theremin was also friendly with Einstein, who was fascinated with his invention.

"Einstein was interested in the connection between music and geometrical figures: not only colour, but mostly triangles, hexagons, heptagons, different kinds of geometrical figures. He wanted to combine these into drawings. He asked whether he could have a laboratory in a small room in my large house, where he could draw," Theremin said.

Very cool.

But life for Theremin in New York got a lot more complicated with divorce from his first wife, and an ugly situation with the long arm of the Party in which a pro-Fascist magazine claimed said wife as one of their own, which was obviously a massive political no-no. He then married - scandalously for the time - a black dancer. He was apparently ordered back to Russia in 1938, and put to work in a labour camp for 20 years. It was widely rumoured that he had been executed. It was later said that he in fact returned to the Soviet Union due to financial and tax problems with the American authorities. He later designed a bug called The Thing - which was encased in a wooden copy of the US Presidential Seal and presented to the US Ambassador to Moscow by schoolchildren. It was not discovered for several years!

Bugs, scandalous marriages, Lenin and Einstein aside, it is for his strange space age instrument that theremin is best remembered.

Arguably the most famous song that features a theremin... strictly doesn't. 'Good Vibrations', that wonderful, expensive, perfect pop symphony actually features an electro-theremin, built for Paul Tanner to mimic the sound of the theremin but to give him more control of the pitch by using a dial rather than the crazy invisible thang. He did, however, play a theremin for live shows - it was built for the Beach Boys by none other than Robert Moog.



Its most dramatic use in rock was without by Jimmy Page, who plays theremin on 1969's 'Whole Lotta Love'.

Jimmy gives it some serious woo-wooJimmy gives it some serious woo-woo

One of Jimmy's heirs as the guitarist's guitarist, Joe Bonamassa, has used the theremin to good effect, 'playing' it with his guitar neck.

Awesome machine, controlled with the power of the mind, designed by a Soviet scientist, taken on by Robert Moog, beloved of Einstein, Lenin, Brian Wilson and Jimmy Page: theremin, you are definitely my favourite ever hands-free instrument.

Theremin t-shirt



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