The theremin, one of the first electronic instruments, was invented by the Russian physicist and musician Lev Theremin in 1919. It was originally named by its inventor the “Aetherophone”. In German dictionaries we also find the title “Aetherwellen Musikinstrument”. In Russia we call this instrument “Thereminvox”, which means Theremin’s voice. The name Thereminvox was given to the musical instrument by journalists because, contrary to many other electronic instruments, this one is very expressive, reminding us of the sound of the human voice.
Pic. 2 The principle schema of the theremin
The theremin does not look like any other music instrument. It is a box with two antennae, one vertical and one horizontal. The electrical schematic is extraordinary in its simplicity. The construction uses the principle of electrical magnetic disturbance. The controlling section, the two metal antennae senses the position of the player's hands, actually the electrical capacity between the antennae and performer’s entire body, and controls radio frequency oscillators for the pitch with one hand, and volume with the other.
One of the most beautiful works from the early period is The Fantasy for theremin, string quartet, oboe and piano by Bohuslav Martinu (1944), a lyrical masterpiece with slow cantilenas, songful large intervals and sounds of lamentation. The composer was inspired for this romantic and gentle image of the theremin by the student of Lev Theremin, Lucie Bigelow Rosen, who had commissioned this piece.
On the one hand the romantic style of theremin music was created by the inventor himself and wonderfully developed by the playing of his other student, Clara Rockmore. Another work written specially for her is the most virtuoso theremin score, Concerto for theremin and orchestra by Anis Fuleihan, premiered by the New York Philharmonic under Leopold Stokowski in 1945. Its second movement is a beautiful calm lullaby with some ornamental chants. In the first and, in particular the third movements, we find that the theremin part has several passages and motifs with rather violin-like expressions. Everyone is really impressed while listening to Rockmore’s performance of sharp rapid staccato and firm accents.
Nowadays we have several good thereminists for whom composers write their works which ensures that they are playable. Among recent works written for the theremin there are several concert works. Mark Grant, an American, wrote a solo piece “Bird of Paradise” for me in 1998. Do we know how a Bird of Paradise could sing? Does it have a coloratura or a bass voice? The composer decided to enjoy the whole seven octaves range of the theremin. He filled this range with mysterious and lyrical melodies, similar to bird trills and flying scales.
The question about how the theremin music is notated is easy to answer in such pieces as “Bird of Paradise” and Fuleihan’s concerto. Traditional melodies and passages are traditionally notated the same way as for voice, or for flute, or for theremin. The theremin player needs to read music and hear it with his inner ear. For the composer, when composing this kind of music for the theremin, it is important to sing through the composed line, which will be very similar to how it is going to sound on the theremin.
New rules and notation problems appear when there are glissandos in the piece. The way to control the sound on the theremin is to control the glissando. On the one hand this makes huge problems with finding the right note and playing in tune, on the other hand, it creates so many glissando possibilities that no other musical instrument has. These qualities were very slowly discovered and put to use by the composers. The character of the glissando can be very different and the main issue for the composer is that it is too difficult to predict how the glissando will sound in the end: wild or weak, expressive or annoying. The performer plays a huge role in creating the image of the glissando and normally composers work with performers, explaining to them what they want. Such works as “Equatorial” by E.Varese, “Mixolydia” by J. Antunes, “The Seasons” for theremin and orchestra by myself and “Norman Air” by Christofer Tarnov, combine traditionally notated melodies and themes with lots of large glissandos between the notes independent of any particular notes.
Pic. 4 “Bird of Paradise” for theremin solo by Mark Grant (1998)
Pic. 1 The theremin build by Lev Theremin for Lydia Kavina in 1976
The work “Woo” by Joseph Person, written in 1997 for the New York thereminist Eric Rose, is one such work. It swings from chromatic melodies to shaking tremolos, from pointed placed dotes to quickly drew marks.
The first melody shows the notes first, but then is washed away in glissandos. The tremolos within the fifths later in the scores are more tricky to interpret and risk sounding like an ambulance alarm, unless the performer finds a way to play with their speed.
Other compositional methods are in pieces where the glissando becomes the musical language itself. In this case composers think of innovation, discovering new composing techniques and notation. And so the performer has to learn how to read a new type of score.
The first glissando scores were created by Percy Grainger. He called this work “his only important contribution to music”. He criticised traditional music with its “Archaic notations, tied down by set scales, a tyrannical rhythmic pulse.” Grainger wrote two lines for each instrument: a top line for the pitch, a bottom line for the volume. It is written on millimetre paper and supposed to be played very precisely. Well, ideally it should be played by a computer. Though, when one is listening to realisations of “Free Music” on Grainger’s machines and on computers one is not get really impressed by this music. But the scores themselves look very attractive. This makes musicians attractive to the idea of playing it again and again. Taking this challenge of playing “Free Music” live we, on the one hand, realise the idea of Grainger that Free Music is for Theremins, and on the other hand we experience the advantage of the live performance of graphic scores where the wave of the visual line immediately corresponds with the audio line and the line of the performers’ movements.
Pic. 5 “Woo” for theremin solo by Joseph Person (1997)
Grainger wrote in a statement on Free Music in 1938: “Free Music demands a non-human performance. The composer wants to speak to the public directly. Too long has music been subject to the limitations of the human, and subject to the interference of interpretations of a middle man: the performer. That is why I write my Free Music for Theremins – the most perfect tonal instruments I know.” However the theremin is played by a human. So, here the rules of human performance start: how to read the score, how to learn it and how to realise the music as close to the composer’s wish as possible.
The first live performance of “Free Music #1” by four thereminists was given in New York in 1997. But it took a long while until the quality of the performance matched the original score. The huge problem was the synchronisation of many players. A successful performance became possible when it was conducted by a video, where the score was running through a vertical line that shows the point to play at each real moment.
What we see in the score is free of rhythms and scales: glissandos, microtons, no rhythm, or beat. But it is not chaos. In “Free music #2” we discover phrases, duets of pairs of voices and melodies of its own kind. There is even a recognizable link from one Free music to the other.
This music is very difficult to learn and musicians use all methods to realise it. To understand the melodies and dynamics, musicians have to write some fragments in notes, because practically for the theremin performer it is necessary to have the melody in his or her ear to be able to play it.
The idea of music free of scales has been realised in many ways in the twentieth century. The sound of “Vacuum Holuzinationen” for two theremins, violin and violoncello by the German composer Caspar Johanes Walter reminds us of “Free Music”. There are similar non-stop glissando lines which are notated in traditional notes using quote tones accidentals signs and precise descriptions of fine rhythms.
For the Russian composer Vladimir Nicolaev the precision of pitch and time is not that important. He lets us hear the melodies of the waves, their development and their power without stopping or concentrating on any point in this ocean of music. It is a picture of feelings that can’t be put into words. Though having a simple look, this work needs the composer’s detailed explanations.
The glissando is part of the theremin’s image, since it often appears whenever it is played on this instrument, particularly if it is not played extremely well. This image was widely used as the sound effect in soundtracks.
The traditional use of the spooky sound of the theremin became well-known in the 1940-1960 period, though not everybody knew what this sound came from. The electronic sound was new and was used to express unusual feelings, such as nervousness of the character expressed in a very fast vibrato on a single extremely long note in “Spellbound” or sliding in the chromatic melody as a leitmotiv of a man from another galaxy in “The Day the Earth Stood Still”.
Nowadays the theremin surprisingly is often heard in films, cartoons and audio plays. Besides its standard horror effect the theremin often plays in these films a more lyrical role: “Ed Wood”, “The Machinist”, “Midsomer Murders”.
The greatest use of the theremin for its sound effects is by pop musicians. Its repeated loud glissando octaves give funny and optimistic images of the “Good Vibrations” of the Beach Boys. Wild witches’ howls and screams make the special strong character of “Messer Chups” recordings.
Theremin sound is important for fairy tale creatures in such theatre productions as the opera about a Wolf man, “Beahlamms Fest” by Olga Neuwirth. Its cold, melancholic and tragic sound became the voice of the Little Mermaid in the Ballet by Lera Auerbach.
“Kitezh 19” by Russian composer Iraida Jusupova makes the theremin represent the flickering light of a lighthouse. In this piece the theremin plays only one note, repeated again and again, as a call in the desert. This note is extremely along, persistently alive and it appears each time new and different, like an appeal to freedom by a lonely prisoner.
Why do composers again and again use the theremin as a sound effect, though new synthesizers have been developed with thousands of generated sounds of all kinds and computer programs can create or imitate any sound? I would suggest that only the theremin can do this mystery of an uncertainty, because its way of playing, its fine tuning, its various vibratos and the soft start of the note, its sensitive of volume of a huge range. I see the theremin as a bridge between electronic and traditional instruments that has some qualities of both sides and yet is different from them at the same time.
Another aspect of theremin music that most fascinates people is its appearance. It is the visual effect of the performance.
The theremin is a sinaesthetic instrument. The melody becomes visualisation in the gesture. The fingers of a player draw listeners to look to them, like a magnet. The observer seems to see the music in the performer’s hands. The movements are not necessary theatrical: where Lev Theremin’s hands were calm and artistic, the firmly working fingers of Clara Rockmore were different. However the reason for this magnetism is an immediate correspondence between the movement, even a tiny one, and a change in the melody, making the movements as expressive as a pantomime.
This point is very obvious in the theatre. The theremin becomes one of the wonderland creatures in the musical “Alice in Wonderland”, by Tom Waits and Robert Wilson, where the theremin is placed between the orchestra pit and the stage. Another play is “Theremin performance” by the Danish “Hotel pro Forma” that involved children playing theremins.
John Cage was probably the first composer who wrote for the theremin as an instrument for the movement of the entire body of the performer. Bob Moog designed and built modified theremins to Cage’s specifications. They were positioned throughout the stage to trigger musical events when dancers passed by. The idea of blending dance and sound in such a way, however, was preceded by Lev Theremin in his dance platform, the terpsitone.
Pic. 6 “Free Music #2” a fragment with notation
The precision of a gesture was very important for the German composer Michael Richter de Vrohe in his “Theremins Inseln”. He put additional marks for special shapes of the hand for each note or phrase, that makes the performance reminiscent of a silent talk.
Pic. 7 ”Theremin islands” for two Theremins, percussion and piano by Nicolaus Richter de Vroe (2004)
For me the revolution in my theremin playing technique occurred when I worked on the piece by Jorge Campos called “Glissandy”, written in 1996 for several theremins. The score combines melodical patterns as well as graphs and drawings. The composer made the theremin express his drawing in the sound and gesture at the same time. The audience see and hear at the same time the fragments of the score, that aleotoricaly change each other: fine vorschlags, various long vibratos, spirals, numbers.
“Glissandy” leads us to the final point of my brief description of the use of the theremin voice. Here we risk not hearing the Theremin-vox itself anymore, because it is a way of theremin development as space controller, when it may control anything from sounds and sound effects, light and projections, to making films in real time.
Many people expect more than one sound from an electronic instrument. It is often asked if the theremin can play like a violin, or guitar. Robert Moog worked hard on his MIDI-theremin for many years and built the “Ethervox” that could control synthesiser sounds connected through MIDI. “Theremin Centre”, the studio for electronic music at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, is one of the most active developers of such space controllers. Its director, Andre Smirnov, builds all kinds of antennae for music concerts, installations and theatre productions.
In the experimental music field the theremin is often switched to Delays, Loops and other guitar effects, or is connected through special programs to a computer and is a controller for some programs in this computer - to active them. For example, pitches and amplitudes produced by the theremin in “Forces Motrices” by Valerio Sannicandro are tracked and translated into live-electronic parameters. The more complex is the connection, the farer is the correspondence between the movement and the result. Sometimes I see there are dangers for the performance, when the audience does not really understand this connection, when it is not obvious what the advantage of using the theremin is for this music and why not use a keyboard? Too often it doesn’t look clear at all: very few movements of the player accompanied by a huge sound picture, where we do not know whether it is created by the player or by the computer.
In the project “Inner Ear and Naked Eye” of the German visual artist Joachim Schaefer and myself, I had to play the theremin while controlling computer sounds and video fragments at the same time. The aim was to make it clear how my movements created sounds and pictures. And I should say that the more simple and modest we kept our means the better was the result. One of our compositions is called “Lydia plays Lydia”. Through my theremin performance, connected to a computer program, I have to create live a film from the pre- recorded pictures of my movement. This looks like I am controlling a marionette in the theatre.
I see a lot of potential in this space control development, because the innovations of these days go on the way of, what Lev Theremin called, Teletouch – the machine reacts to the distant movement. By the way, one of the most interesting findings in my theremin teaching is to watch how quickly students of the new generation adapt to the playing in the air. It was not that obvious 10-15 years ago. Perhaps the theremin has finally come of age.
Pic. 8 “Glissandy” for four Theremins by Jorge Campos (1996)
Pic. 3 The First Airophonic Suite” for theremin and orchestra by Joseph Schilliner (1929)