Gear Stories With Sylvia Massy: Whole Lotta Theremin

Apr 27, 2010 2:49 PM, By Sylvia Massy



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How can you keep from smiling? It farts, groans, weedles and screams as it’s being played, with hands moving erratically around its metal antennae. I keep the crazy thing hidden in the equipment locker at the studio and only reveal its presence when I know we have lots of time to kill. That’s when I’ll pull out the Theremin. It’s always good for a laugh and maybe, just maybe, we’ll get a keeper track. For the most part, it is best as a bonding element and a great video opportunity that everyone can participate in as no one needs any particular advance training to play one. In the world of weird, obscure musical instruments, the Theremin is king.

The sound of the Theremin is unmistakable. Its otherworldly warbling tone is heard in many classic B-grade sci-fi flicks from the 1950s. As much as it is a novelty for us in recording sessions, the Theremin’s development and history are profound in the field of electronic music. In fact, you can consider this invention to be the original electronic instrument!

Russian inventor and cellist Léon Theremin (originally known as Lev Termen) designed several early electronic instruments, microphones and video devices during his long life. He is best known as the inventor of the Theremin, which he patented in 1928. It is a device that generates an electronic tone; the frequency and volume are controlled by holding your hands close to (but not touching) antennae on the sides of the unit. The closer your hand is to the first antenna, the higher the pitch generated. The closer your hand is to the second antenna, the louder the tone gets. By wiggling your hand as you control the note, you can get a bowed vibrato tone that’s similar to a violin or cello, just a lot more alien-sounding—thus its popularity as the spooky sound featured in 1950s movie thrillers such as The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing (From Another Planet).

Angelo Moore onstage with Fishbone, playing his psychedelic Etherwave Moog

Angelo Moore onstage with Fishbone, playing his psychedelic Etherwave Moog

In the world of rock music, the Theremin has been used in several classic recordings including Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. You’ll hear Jimmy Page wailing away on a Theremin in the film The Song Remains the Same. There are also several current masters of this instrument in rock music; one of the best I’ve recorded is Angelo Moore from the band Fishbone. He sometimes uses an older wooden vacuum tube model patched into an array of guitar pedals and a guitar amp to rev up its sound. His spastic, wild waving of hands while playing the Theremin just adds to the excitement of his live performances. Robert Wheeler from the band Pere Ubu and Dave Gibney from Los Angeles’ Chingalera are other great, but perhaps obscure, Thereminists.

Among many of his inventions, Theremin also developed the “rhythmicon,” which was the first drum machine, and the “terpsitone,” a device that translates a dancer’s movements into electronic musical notes. The terpsitone was seemingly a larger version of the Theremin, using a dancer’s entire body to play the thing instead of just the hands, and it was completely uncontrollable! Theremin’s inventions caused a sensation in the world of avant-garde music in the 1930s, when he became somewhat of a celebrity in America. He paid dearly for his ingenuity and his notoriety when he suddenly disappeared in the late ’30s; it was rumored that he was taken by the KGB to a Soviet work camp “laboratory” in Siberia. He was not to return to the U.S. for the next 30 years.

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