The Amazing Story Of Theremin

Making music with a wave of the hand.

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The Amazing Story Of Theremin

Fantastic things can happen in the music world. Can you imagine that an electronic instrument can be used as a modern laser alarm system that protects museums and banks? Well, that's exactly what Theremin, a musical instrument, was used for in the early twentieth century.

Lev Sergeyevich Theremin (1896-1993), a talented man, a prominent physicist and a wonderful cellist, was born at the right time and place. During his life he had the opportunity to experience worldwide fame, touring around the world, to open the Teletouch Inc. company in America, and then return to Russia, where he was destined to survive the arrests and repressions in Stalin's camps, to work in secret laboratories to create a number of unique inventions, and, after all that, to work in the Moscow Conservatory. And also, at the end of his life, at age 93, he managed to participate at the festival of experimental music in France. Theremin was one lucky man.

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He studied at St. Petersburg University at the faculties of physics and astronomy. He also studied cello in the St. Petersburg Conservatory. During the civil war he joined the Bolsheviks. In 1920 he designed a unique electronic musical instrument which he gave his name «Theremin». The sound of this instrument is considered as the synthesis of the human voice, violin, cello, flute, trumpet and other instruments. It has a space timbre that has an almost hypnotic effect on the audience.

In the early 1920s, physicist Léon Theremin was doing research on proximity sensors for the Russian government. He was trying to develop something like a land-based sonar device using an electromagnetic field to detect objects that entered a certain zone. Instead, the scientist came up with a musical instrument. The Theremin was presented as an electric alarm at the VIII World Congress of Electrical Engineering to Vladimir Lenin. Lenin liked the presented invention. He was particularly amused that the alarm device could still play "Nocturne" by Chopin and "Lark" by Glinka. Soon after the Congress the State Bank and the Hermitage were equipped with the Theremin alarm.

Nevertheless this invention became more popular as a musical instrument. Lev Theremin believed that the possibilities of the Theremin most fully revealed while playing "Vocalise" by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Inside the first Theremins, a circuit of vacuum tubes, oscillators, coils and wires created electromagnetic fields around the instrument's two antennae. Players fluttered their fingers and waved their hands near the antennae to raise or lower the Theremin's pitch and volume. Thus, the sound could reach a range of 3-4 octaves.

The original version of the instrument was monophonic. Later, in 1975, the polyphonic Theremin was launched. The polyphonic Theremin was able to accompany the melody by chords in the tempered tuning system.

Theremin was also used by foreign directors in their movies. For example, Alfred Hitchcock introduced the sound of this instrument with a mysterious tone in "Spellbound". And Gene Roddenberry used the Theremin in his famous "Star Trek" series.

In 2006, Lydia Kavina and Barbara Buchholz jointly organized the international "Touch! Don't Touch!" festival. Four Russian and five German composers wrote Theremin music specially for this event.

Barbara Buchholz «Somewhere Over The Rainbow»

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Theremin cover of «Violet» by the Hole

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Led Zeppelin «Whole Lotta Love» Theremin solo

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Star Trek theme on Theremin

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19 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I still don't get it how can something like this work...I'll leave it to magic. And btw. have you guys noticed how UG is lately filling with quality stuff? Give us another Amazing story of...! This is cool.
    There's usually several "Top X of X" lists every day. You call that quality content?
    I meant "Complete guide to...", UG Wiki and now this. Yeah, there are way too many lists lately.
    I'd rather these than several fucking articles on Mike Portnoy and countless other artists that UG seem to always promote.  People are never happy!
    There should be a sidebar to every single article on here where we can read what Mike Portnoy, Corey Taylor, Dave Mustaine and Gene Simmons have to say about that particular topic. 
    Arfing Thumb
    Well, I would call him 'overall lucky'. Because even though he survived, sitting in one of Stalin's camps isn't something I would call a lucky experience
    You get to see the whole USSR on the way there, free healthcare, free daily cardio, and then after that you get to live 65 odd years doing what you like. 
    A few months back I bought a Moog Theremin... I was always fascinated by the concept and sound.  What's really cool is that you can plug this into different effects and have the 'flow' of the theremin sound, but not exactly the sound.  I did a piece with a theremin plugged into an Axe Fx II, called Thereminotaur:
    But how can he be 93 years old, born in 1896 and died in 1993?
    ~Maxi King~
    He was 93 when he attended the festival. It doesn't say that he died the same day. Maybe they should have written "near the end of his life".
    Stalin air-brushed three to four years out of Theremin's life's in 1942. They were never seen again.
    The article should give major props to Bob Moog.  He started out selling theramin kits in the 60's before inventing the Moog synthesizer.  Without his promotion of the instrument it might never have found it's way to Mr Page  
    " Theremin cover of «Violet» by the Hole " Best part of the article for me. Also wow @ that guy singing