The theramin, or theremin - opinion is divided on the correct spelling - was probably the first practical electronic musical instrument. It is credited with inspiring Bob Moog to invent his synthesizer. Invented by Lev Sergievitch Termen (normally Anglicized to Leon Theramin) in 1919, it was intended to be a classical instrument. Well, originally it was intended to be an improved radio but, after he discovered his new instrument's capabilities, Lev tried to develop it as an orchestral instrument.
Although it has made more of an impact in the popular music arena, few classical composers seemed interested in working with an instrument with no fixed pitch. This is a shame because it is hard to think of another instrument which has had such an influence, or which has been so completely different from anything that's gone before. Certainly, when he toured Europe in 1927, crowds were such that the police had to be called in to control them.
Where Might I Have Heard One?
Remember those high-pitched whines in the music for Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!? Well, the wobbly electronic thingummy in the background is a theramin. Science fiction movies of the 1950s would have been very much the poorer without the theramin soundtracks. Well, probably.
Also, for you trendy popsters, the band Goldfrapp use the instrument extensively on songs like 'Lovely Head' from their Felt Mountain album.
And the Beach Boys?
A common - and easily understood - misconception is that the Beach Boys' song 'Good Vibrations' also featured a theramin. Well, not quite, that was an instrument confusingly and misleadingly known originally as an electro-theremin, later changed to the Tannerin after its inventor Paul Tanner. This is capable of creating theremin-like sounds but it works on a very different principle, more like the Ondes Martenot. This kind of instrument is much easier to play than a real theremin and has a wonderful sound of its own, but it is not a Theremin. Tanner, who himself played on the Beachboys recording is on record as himself being somewhat embarrased by the confusion. Very few, if any, people would have the skill to play such a controlled and tuneful melody with perfect intonation on a Theramin.
Tell Me More
It is tempting to think that the instrument is unique in its lack of fixed pitch but, of course, there are other instruments which have the same attribute - the slide trombone, for example, or the swannee whistle. The theramin is different in that it is an electronic instrument designed not to mimic the sound of an existing instrument, but to be unique and distinctive. It is also unique in that it is played without being touched. It generates an electronic tone whose frequency is modulated by a capacitor, one of whose plates is the player. By moving the hands, the player can vary both pitch and volume at will - continuously variable. No other instrument of any significance has been designed to be played simply by moving the hands in the air nearby. Odd? Certainly, but curiously compelling in its ethereal sound and technical simplicity.
So what does it look like? The original resembled a small coffin on legs with an aerial and a handle, but the physics of the device are such that it could be almost any shape. One has been built out of an old desk drawer, and the one used in 'Good Vibrations' was like three or four shoeboxes, joined end-to-end, with a couple of knobs on one end.
Bands such as the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion still use the theramin, and it has a number of other devotees. However, it remains a sadly neglected instrument, despite the founding in 1997 of an International Theramin Festival in Portland, Maine, USA.
Lev Termen was reputedly kidnapped from the USA by the KGB in 1938. He reappeared 30 years later, despite wide assumptions of his death. Lev/Leon Sergievitch Termen/Theramin was a man whose life was as singular as his instrument.