The Theremin: More Than A Musical Gimmick

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(Host)  In 1922, Soviet scientist Leon Theremin gave a demonstration at the Kremlin for an audience that included Vladimir Lenin. It involved a new electronic musical instrument that Theremin had named after himself.

Nearly a century after its invention, the theremin still seems as novel as it did back then, and few people think of it as a serious musical instrument.

But a St. Johnsbury man who’s a self-taught theremin player is trying to create a new appreciation for the instrument and its history.   

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

 (Zind)  Its spelled T-H-E-R-E-M-I-N. Maybe you haven’t heard the word, but there’s a good chance you’ve heard the instrument.

Kevin Colosa is a theremin player – and a student of its history. 

(Colosa) "This is the theremin that most people have heard and will say, ‘Oh yes!  I know what that instrument is, I’ve heard that a hundred times!"

(spooky sound of theremin)

(Zind)  In the 1950s and ‘60s the theremin sent shivers up many a spine.  It was a common special effect in B grade science fiction films like "It Came From Outer Space".  The sound of the theremin was used so often to creep out moviegoers that it became a cliché. 

The modern theremin is an electronic box with two antennas sticking out of it:  A vertical one about two feet high and a horizontal looped one about the size of an oven mitt.

The theremin player doesn’t touch the instrument, He controls the pitch and volume by the movement of his hands and fingers in the electronic field that surrounds the antennas.   

(Zind) As he plays, Colosa stands stock still, his hands suspended in air.  He raises his left hand slowly to increase the volume.  The fingers of his right hand move just slightly to control the pitch. The whole effect adds to the spooky feeling the instrument evokes.   But Colosa points out Leon Theremin didn’t invent it as a gimmick.

(Colosa)  "When the theramin was first developed as a musical instrument, the intent was that it would be used as a classical instrument.  Essentially the theremin operates the same way that a single stringed violin would operate if you had a string that had everywhere from one cycle per second all the way up to several thousand cycles per second, running the entire range of pitches from zero beat all the way up to dogs can hear it but we can’t."

(Zind)  Leon Theremin gave concerts to showcase his invention, but it was one of his students, a woman named Clara Rockmore who demonstrated the instrument’s full potential

(Colosa) "Clara Rockmore actually brought artistry to this instrument that no one ever since has."

(Zind)  Rockmore’s theremin career began in the 1930s.  She died in 1998.  The early theremins were about the size of a lectern.  Today the instrument is contained in a small box.

The skills involved are the same, though.  This is a musical instrument with no frets and no neck; nothing you can touch to serve as a reference point. The theremin player is just grasping at thin air. Adding to the challenge is the fact that objects in the surrounding area, including other people can affect the electronic field of the theremin.

(Colosa)  "You have to tune the field of the theremin every time you play it and account for the size and shape of the room, the presence of other people, the presence of metal, the presence of objects that will set it off.  So, if I’m looking for a middle C for example, it’s never in the same place."

(Zind) It’s no wonder that beginning in the 1940s the theremin became more popular for creating special effects than music. Colosa points to one particular moment when the course of theremin history changed.

(Colosa) "I believe it was 1945 with Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, the thermin began to be used for weird, eerie, spooky, noisy sounds." 

(Zind)  And so the die was cast.  The theremin was forever linked with a feeling of foreboding and fears of the unknown and the supernatural.

(Colosa) "It kind of lost its status as a bonafide musical instrument because it had become relegated to the realm of a noisemaker.  Because to be quite frank it’s not easy to make music with a theremin, it’s very easy to make noise with a theremin."

(Zind) But if you can manage to listen to the theremin without making those associations, it’s a singularly melancholy sound that suits certain compositions, as the virtuoso Clara Rockmore demonstrated.

The 1994 documentary, "Theremin, An Electronic Odyssey" spurred interest in the music of the instrument.  That film is how Colasa, who plays standup bass in a western swing band, discovered the theremin. 

(Colosa ther13) "It intrigued me that there could be an instrument that you didn’t have to touch to play.  I just thought it looked cool and I said, ‘I’ll get one of these things, I bet I could play that.’  For about the first year or so it kind of sounded like a cat being strangled, I think I was told to put it away a few times."

(Zind) ) In recent years the theremin has reclaimed some of its status as a serious instrument.  There have been posthumous releases of recordings by Clara Rockmore and new recordings of music composed for theremin. These include classical works, jazz and experimental compositions – and even some that gleefully embrace the instrument’s time honored place in old movies about aliens and monsters.

(Zind) For VPR news, I’m Steve Zind.

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