My husband took my rather throwaway suggestion regarding my Christmas present seriously this year – and bought me a Theremin.
The Theremin was created by mistake by Russian inventor Leon Theremin: he was trying to make a better TV set and ended up creating the world’s first electronic instrument, and possibly the oddest (along with the Ondes Martenot).
I first encountered the eerie Sci-Fi sounds of the Theremin on Portishead’s song ‘Mysteron’s and then on songs by Alison Goldfrapp (who, it is said, can play the Theremin “with her crotch”; I’ve got some way to go before I can perfect this particular technique of controlling the instrument…..!). I’m not a big fan of pop music, per se, but I do like singers and bands who use utilise unusual harmonies and instrumentation (Kate Bush, Radiohead, Goldfrapp) and the spooky, haunting sound of the Theremin definitely adds a certain je ne sais quoi to any piece of music….. It’s no surprise that it has been used in Sci-Fi film and TV scores, notably Spellbound, The Lost Weekend, Ed Wood, The Machinist, and of course, Star Trek. What is more surprising is that a number of classical composers have used its curious swooping sounds in concert music, including Bohuslav Martinu. Percy Grainger and Fazil Say. A quick search on Spotufy threw up all manner of Theremin albums and playlists, including Theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore’s Lost Theremin Album, which contains such “gems” (!) as Dvorak’s Humoreske and Schubert’s Ave Maria, as well as a version of Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’, from Porgy and Bess, the swooping, wailing Theremin providing a rather poignant melody line to this well-known number. In some works, the Theremin has the haunting, melodic qualities of a klezmer fiddle or gypsy violin – such as in the ‘Melody’ by Joseph Schillinger, performed by Lydia Kavina, Leon Theremin’s grand-niece.
It’s going to take me some time and a lot of patience to master the Theremin and so until I am ready to post some of my own tracks, please enjoy some of my Theremin discoveries:
Weird Science – Billy Bailey on the history of the Theremin and one of its leading exponents, Clara Rockmore