The Theremin

Page's instrumental arsenal has included a theremin (taer'-uh-min) since summer of 1996. (e.g. 8/2/968/4/96 and 8/13/96). It's use declined after that first tour - 10/27/96 and 8/6/97 is exceptions, and perhaps the 8/10/97 soundcheck. But it's made a bit of a return: Recent uses include 8/5/11, 8/15/11, 9/4/1112/31/11, and 6/23/12

History: One of the first electronic instruments, and the only instrument played without being touched, the theremin was invented in 1918 by Leon Theremin (Lev Terman?), a Russian physicist born 1895 in St. Petersburg who stumbled upon the "device" while working with radio signals for the Russian goverment. It was first sold in 1929 by RCA; Big Briar (Robert Moog's company) is the leading manufacturer today.

How it's played: The theremin is a synthesizer that uses a field monitored by two antennae (one horizontal and one vertical, forming a right angle) as the input device (instead of, e.g., a keyboard.) The field created within this right-angle reads "capacitance" to produce noise sounding something like a cello.. Moving your hand (or a wand) within that angle disturbs and changes the electromagnetic field between the antennae, one of which reads changes in amplitude (and produces change in volume) and one of which reads change in frequency (and produces change in pitch).

How it works: "It works using the same theories that allow a good musician to tune instruments accurately. When you have an instrument that is out of tune to a reference note, you can hear a pulse in the sound that you can use to tune the instrument. The theramin works by using an electronic oscillator to create a high pitch tone (inaudible) as a reference tone, and another oscillator who's tuning is controlled by a simple antenna which detects changes in electical capacity. The produced tone is the 'pulse' frequency between the two oscillator frequencies." (Brian Whitman posted to the MMW list 1/23/97) You can build one, with schematics and technical guide, or a cheap pocket version.

Where else you've heard it: Think of the eerie sounds in 1950's horror and science fiction movies.

  • Theremins have been featured on the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" (at the end), in Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" (in the middle), in the theme to the original Star Trek TV show, and in the themes of The Lost Weekend, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Ed Wood.
  • Lothar and the Hand People (60s acid rock band) used one frequently, and Jon Spencer (of Jon Spencer & the Blues Explosion) plays one on occasion.
  • Bruce Haack once played one on Mr. Rodger's Neighborhood, and let Fred try, too.
  • Matthew Sweet used one on his album 100% Fun.
  • James Coleman performed a theramin concert 1/28/97 at M.I.T.'s Killian Auditorium.
  • A cover of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy".

For other theramin info, we recommend:

  • The 1994 movie Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, about inventor Leon Victor Theremin and theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore, directed by Steve Martin (no, not the comedian) and produced by Orion Classics.
  • The 1996 (?) book-and-cd collection on experimental musical instruments Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones, published by Ellipsis Arts, covered theremins (and some other oddities: "New York, New York" with cars horns and ceramic pots, Phil Dadson's tubes percussion stations featured in The Blue Man group's performance art, and ugar Belly playing a saxophone made out of bamboo.)
  • There was a special issue of Grand Royal magazine about electronicus (moogs, theremins, Dick Hymen, etc.) (Grand Royal is the accompanying rag for the Beastie Boys' label of the same name.).
  • There's also the Theremin Enthusiasts Club International and a newsgroup is a non-commercial project run by Phish fans and for Phish fans under the auspices of the all-volunteer, non-profit Mockingbird Foundation.

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