Analog musical instruments became largely obsolete in the 1960s, anachronistic just as the advent of electronics fundamentally changed what music could be almost overnight. With the creation of new instruments, there are new conduits to summon new sounds that he draws from the afterlife, playing and teasing sounds in new shapes, sizes and textures previously impossible. And no, I’m not talking about the synthesizer. There was an older, more obscure electronic instrument called the theremin.
It was accidentally invented by Russian physicist Leon Theremin in 1919 while trying to design proximity sensing devices for the Soviet government. Her experiment failed in what she set out to achieve, but her byproduct surpassed any other possible outcome, intentional or not. The very first electronic musical instrument was born.
Understand the peculiarities of theremin
The theremin is one of the most unusual instruments: it is played without physical contact. Let it soak in for a minute – you play the instrument without touching it! What in the world? How is it possible? For those who need visual evidence, here is an extract of the theremin played by its creatorâ¦.
It was not a sleight of hand.
Its anatomy consists of a body that houses its circuits with two metal antennae: one protruding laterally on one side controls volume and the other extending upward controls height. You use both hands simultaneously, one for each antenna, to manipulate the interference of the electromagnetic field it emits to produce sound. The player, called a thereminist, ends up looking like a conductor of a ghostly opera from another plane or a gesturing vocal coach causing the ether to sing.
When played, the theremin conjures up a lamentable specter-like moan that can scream at one point or sing a bellows thoroughly in a seemingly endless color palette. But this is only a glance, the interpretation of a layman. On the other hand, Dorit Chrysler, professional thereminist and founder / teacher at the New York Theremin Society, quotes LÃ©on Theremin himself to preface his own description of his strange sound: “After his first concert in New York in the mid-1920s, he declared that” this new device will liberate the composer from the despotism of the twelve-tone scale . ‘She clarifies:’ There is a lyrical component that can be extremely expressive. ‘
Its range is as wide as a synthesizer, so it is not characterized by a single sound. It mostly depends on who plays it, reflecting the player’s personality and functioning as an extension of their voice through gesture, despite the irony of playing it without physical contact.
âThere is no layer in between. This is you create the sound, your movement, âsays Chrysler. “It’s nothing else.” And nothing passes by its detection. “It is the only electronic instrument that has the greatest dynamic range potential because it is so hypersensitive it responds to the slightest movement of your body.”
Because there is no tool separating the musician and the instrument to produce a sound – such as an opening pick or a finger for plucking, a stick for striking, or a burst of breath in a mouthpiece – Chrysler compares playing the theremin to the song. âThe person in the instrument interface is the voiceâ¦ it can really sound [hysterical]. It can also be violent. It can be sweet.
Kiss without touching
The hypersensitivity of theremin is its scourge and its advantage. Paradoxically enough, its ability to make a matching sound so easily âeven when you don’t think you’re moving,â says Chrysler, is what makes it one of the most difficult instruments to play. Most people are even intimidated to try it. It takes a lot of dexterity to make it not sound awful, but that’s also what offers its wide sonic range. However, if you plan to test the waters, don’t let the pre-trepidation set in just yet. It is “neither easier nor more difficult than a guitar or a violin,” says Chrysler, “but you have to get down to it and take it as seriously as any other musical instrument.”
There is no key to mastering it because just like the instrument itself, learning to play the theremin is not one-dimensional. âThere are different approaches [to] technical. But for me, I think there is no right and wrong, and it really depends on what you want to do with this instrument.
It’s almost like you have to invent your own technique to play it. It just provides a kind of amplifier for the poetics of your own “driving voice”. And no two voices are the same.
The test of time
Theremin left an indelible mark like the sound of the mid-1920se century of science fiction, notably in the soundtrack of the 1951 apocalyptic film, The day the earth stood still where it first earned a name for its strangeness. Since then, groups from the psychedelic ’60s wave, as large as the Rolling Stones, to the welcome landscape of’ 90s electro-experimental tapestry weavers like Garbage, have casually endeavored to rub shoulders with theremin. Its sounds have even crept into TV soundtracks, having been featured on the hit Marvel TV show. Loki.
Although it has already crossed the upper realm of orchestral music and the lower realm of pop, there is still virgin territory to explore. When asked what the future of the theremin might look like, Chrysler thinks, “This might be a good time to crack open the cracks and make room for this unorthodox new interface.”
She believes continued use of the theremin “depends on who dives into the instrument and takes it to new visionary heightsâ¦ hopefully a genius.” She admits that not many people explore the theremin’s potential, but suggests that in the hands of a hyphenated artist like Brian Eno or BjÃ¶rk, he could really break through. âI’m just waiting for their call.