Jimmy Page plays the theremin during "Whole Lotta Love"

Jimmy Page plays the theremin live, on “Whole Lotta Love.”

Russian physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen was an eccentric guy.  Known in the U.S. by his westernized name,  Léon Theremin, he invented the spooky-kooky instrument that became synonymous with horror movie scores worldwide, and is surely the instrument that best voices the spirit of Halloween.

Introduced in 1920, it created a sensation when its inventor toured the electronic instrument in concert performances throughout Europe. So Léon moved to the U.S., where he patented the device in 1929, granting commercial production rights to RCA shortly thereafter.

Capable of delivering an eerie and other-wordly sound unlike any other, the theremin is unique among instruments in that it is played with no physical contact; in a typical configuration, two antennae sense the physical position of the performers hands. One hand controls frequency, the other volume. The sound is then amplified through loudspeakers.

Though the Great Depression took the wind out of the theramin’s commercial sales, the public — and some prominent composers — nursed a fascination for the odd-looking and even stranger sounding instrument..

Leon Theremin gives a peek under the hood.

Léon Theremin provides a peek under the hood.

The theramin was used on film soundtracks including Bernard Herrmann‘s backing track for Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), the Ray Bradbury yarn It Came From Outerspace (1953, with an uncredited score composed by Irving Gertz, Henry Mancini, and Herman Stein), and Miklós Rózsa, who liked it so much he used it on  Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend the same year (1945).

Cinema’s electronic music pioneers, Bebe and Louis Barron, conjured there-magic on the industry’s first electronic film score, for the 1956 fantasia Forbidden Planet.  More recently, Tim Burton employed the ol’ electronic sleight of hand on Ed Wood (1994) and Mars Attacks (1996). Village Sound has compiled a thorough roundup.

The theremin sound, which can also be carnival-like, has also been used on pop recordings. Crowded House frontman Neil Finn is a fan. The Eels “Mental,” Garbage’s “Cup of Coffee,” The White Stripes’ “Little People,” “Velouria” by The Pixies and Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” are theremanic. Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones dabbled. The Beach Boys “Good Vibrations” is the most famous theremin song that doesn’t use an actual theremin (instead, a simpler electronic device “inspired” by the theremin was employed, and also can be heard on music to the TV series “My Favorite Martian”).

But we digress! The theremin was created as an offshoot of the Soviet government’s research into proximity sensors. And when its inventor left the U.S. in 1938, rumor has it he was forcibly escorted back to the Russia by what was then, in effect, the KGB. Rumor has it he was made to work in a prison camp laboratory in Siberia, where he invented audio devices for spying, the first “bugs.” The most famous of these, The Thing, was hidden in a “Great Seal” wall plaque gifted by the Soviets to the U.S. National Security Agency, where it hung in the Washington office for years.

For an awesome example of the theremin in action, click to see Peter Pringle perform “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Lydia Kavina, protégée of Léon Theremin and instructor to other thereminists.

Lydia Kavina, protégée of Léon Theremin and instructor to other thereminists.


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