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Rediscovering Leon Theremin

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 February 2010


In the early 1920s and 30s a strange electronic instrument found its way from Russia into some of the more fashionable ballrooms, night clubs, and concert halls in Europe and America. This exotic new invention, called the ‘theremin’ or ‘thereminvox’, caused a considerable stir. Part of the interest was its unusual sound (like a musical saw mated with a light soprano), but its most dramatic feature was that the performer never actually touched the instrument. He or she simply waved graceful hands near the two antennae (one set vertically, the other looped horizontally) to coax out seamless, melifluous melodies. The proximity of the right hand to the vertical antenna changed the ultrasonic electromagnetic field, thus changing the pitch over about a six-octave range. The left hand (or sometimes a foot pedal) controlled the volume. By gently shaking the right hand at the antenna a vibrato could be achieved, giving performances a little more musical (not to mention choreographic) interest. Fashionable women dressed in long gowns seemed to be favourite photographic subjects of the period as performers, as well as the inventor himself, poised ‘playing the rods’ in full dress tails, arms outstretched like a great conductor–or perhaps sorcerer.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1991

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1 Stockholm Electronic Music Festival: 4–10 October, 1990, Kulturhuset, Stockholm, Sweden.

2 From an interview with Leon Theremin [in English] by Stephen Montague after his 5 October, 1990 concert, Stockholm Electronic Music Festival.

3 The Art of Electronic Music by Darter, Tom and Ambruster, Greg (New York: Wm Morrow Co., 1984), p.29 Google Scholar.

4 1922 is the date Theremin gave me, though other sources say it was 1920.

5 Darter, /Ambruster, op.cit., p.29 Google Scholar.

6 The New York Times Arts Section, 1 February 1928.

7 Prieberg, Fred K., Musica ex Machina (Berlin: Ullstein Publications, 1960), p.205 Google Scholar.

8 Slonimsky, Nicolas, Perfect Pitch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988) p. 151 Google Scholar.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., p.150.

11 Darter, /Ambruster, , op.cit., p.29 Google Scholar.

12 ibid.

13 Clara Rockmore, Theremin Virtuoso Delos Records, 855 Via de la Paz, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272 – DEL 25437.

14 Steve Martin, New York film maker. Footage from a documentary film ill progress on Leon Theremin.

15 Slonimsky, , op.cit., p.152 Google Scholar.

16 Slonimsky, , op.cit., p.153 Google Scholar.

17 ibid.

18 Shalamov, Varlam (transl. Glad, John) – Kolyma Tales (London: Penguin, 1990), p.9 Google Scholar.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid., p.7.

21 New York film maker Steve Martin has invited Leon Theremin and his daughter to New York, and is planning activities around his visit.

22 Bosse Bergkuist, composer and producer for Swedish Radio, Malmo.