The Theremin

The theremin is an instrument unique in the history of musical instruments in that it is played without being touched in any way.This electronic device was invented in the 1920s in Russia by Leon Theremin. It is said that he was trying to invent a burglar alarm and discovered that by the use of two radio frequency oscillators,two antennae and one grounding principle (in this case the player), sound could be generated with a variable pitch by allowing the hands or any part of the grounded anatomy to intersect the space between the two antennae. The vertical antenna controls the pitch of the tone, while the volume is regulated by the loop shaped antenna. Because of the design of the instrument there is also a natural tendency for it to produce portamento, glissando or sliding tones, even microtonally, since the musical scale is ‘approximately infinite’ rather than delineated in precise sections or notes. This makes it a difficult instrument to master – it basically needs a lot of study and perfect pitch.

The greatest exponent of the theremin was Clara Rockmore, born in Lithuania in the early 20th century. She devised a system of aerial fingering, abrupt hand gestures and pointing of the fingers which to a certain extent compensated for the glissando difficulty.

Makmed the Miller is the theremin player with Forgotten Fish Memory Orchestra. His playing can be heard on pieces like ‘The Swan’ (a thereminists staple) and also the japanese folk classic ‘Sakura’. He has put out a solo CD called ’14 Smash Hits for Theremin’ which redressed the repertoire usually associated with the instrument, that is, science fiction type noodlings or straight transpositions of classical violin tunes. So his theremin album includes famous popular tunes like ‘Over the Rainbow, and ‘Mackie Messer’, dub reggae classic ‘King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown’, Au Clair de la Lune, the aria from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly as well as several original compositions.

The microtonal quality of the theremin means that it can adapt to any scale, mode or maqam, although as stated, the inherent glissando effect makes playing it very difficult.

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