The sound of the ether
Electronic sounds, seemingly formed by the hands - the thereminvox is one of the weirdest instruments and the ancestor of today's synthesizers.
At first sight the thereminvox (also called etherophone or short: theremin) looks not very impressive: a small box resting on a wooden-legged frame or a microphone stand, like a lectern sporting two shiny antennas. In concert, the theremin-player stands in front of the instrument, his hands fluttering as if to move and shape the air, thus creating an irresistible, deadly beautiful sound. A sound that seems to animate the whining voices of lost souls.
The theremin is an instrument that's hard to understand: it was the first electronic instrument and to this day it has remained the strangest one. The original thereminvox featured radio tubes for producing oscillations above the range of hearing. The two frequencies used in conjunction however create an audible frequency that equals the difference in their rates of vibration. If a hand (or any other object, like a baton) is placed between the antennas, a sound is created as a result of changing one of the inaudible frequencies. The resulting tones change in colour, pitch and dynamics, depending on the position and the movement of the hands.
The general fascination for
all things supernatural in the 1920ies certainly favoured the popularity
of the thereminvox, and daring composers like Henry Cowell and Edgar Varèse
have written musical pieces for this outlandish instrument. Later on,
in the 1960ies, the thereminvox was even used in pop music when the Beach
Boys discovered the unique sound of the instrument. Père Ubu, Massive
Attack or Portishead have also used the thereminvox (or at least its sound)
at some stage in their musical career, mainly as a gimmick though. Apart
from that, the thereminvox has contributed to many an eerie movie soundtrack
- quite a successful story for an instrument that was created (or rather
discovered) by chance when Russian tinkerer Lev Termen experimented with
a radio receiver.
Lev Termen with his instrument and huge triangular amplifier in the back