The Aesthetics and Canon of the Theremin
The Theremin was invented by Russian scientist Leon Theremin in 1920. He was a scientist first and foremost and a musician second. Working for the Russian government on a project to build a burglar alarm he invented an apparatus which was sensitive to movement and used magnetic fields in a system to detect motion and emit a sound basically like a sine wave. While demonstrating the equipment to his superiors, he noticed that the pitch of the tone changed as he moved his hand through the air in close proximity to the antenna. He then tried to play an impromptu melody, in this case ‘The Swan’ from Saint-Saens ‘Carnival of the Animals’, a tune he had learnt in his youth when studying the cello. The theremin itself became modified and developed to facilitate easier playing and made the journey from prototype burglar alarm to fully fledged musical instrument.
The tune ‘The Swan’ became the signature tune associated with the theremin in its early days. It’s certainly not the easiest tune to play but it has the qualities in it which make it quite suitable. The theremin is a much more difficult and exacting instrument than it might appear at first glance. Tunes which have a rapid succession of notes or short staccato phrases are almost impossible to play well. Like a violin or a cello it needs the musician to have excellent perfect pitch and the ability to create a note accurately, stop on it and probably enhance the tone with a little vibrato which makes it just a bit easier. With a stringed instrument the player makes this note on a fingerboard, in the case of the theremin it is necessary to find the tone in mid air creating an extra dimension of difficulty.
The theremin has an infinite sliding scale, so it can create very precise microtonal sounds, unlike fixed instruments like a piano, unfortunately the very dynamic which gives the theremin this extra dimension is also what makes it difficult to play.
For this reason, the repertoire or canon for the instrument has always been limited and quite narrow. In the 1940s and 50s it became the go to device for composers working on film soundtracks for early science fiction or horror movies when an eerie sound with no particular necessary pitch was needed to give a sense of otherworldliness. It was used in the 60s to create a kind of psychedelic atmosphere but again not much more than a strange noise generator. With the emergence of high quality synthesisers in the 70s, the theremin became pretty much redundant and was heard rarely. In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in this vintage musical instrument that you can play without touching.
In the musical performance group Forgotten Fish Memory Orchestra the theremin is played by Makmed the Miller and he has tried to broaden the traditional repertoire. Here is a live performance of the Japanese tune ‘Sakura’.
He also brought out an album of theremin music which sought to redefine the kind of music associated with the instrument. It was called ’14 Smash Hits for Theremin’ and contains famous movie themes, children’s nursery rhymes, an opera aria (madame butterfly), Turkish and Japanese melodies and Chinese restaurant music. Here is a piece of Dub Reggae.
And finally here is a piece of footage of Makmed playing live in Yunnan Province in south China in the East Gate Pagoda of the picturesque town of Dali.