Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Theremin

Russian inventor Leon Theremin brought us many things, such as the world's first motion-detecting security system and an early version of wireless Television in 1925. But his most marvelous creation was the ethereal musical instrument known as the Theremin.

A purely electronic instrument for producing purely electronic music, it is operated by two metal antennas which can sense the position of the player's hands. Pitch and frequency are controlled with one hand, and amplitude with the other. The electrical signals from the Theremin are broadcast via a loudspeaker.

From Wikipedia:

After positive reviews at Moscow electronics conferences, Theremin demonstrated the device to Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. Lenin was so impressed with the device that he began taking lessons in playing it, commissioned six hundred of the instruments for distribution throughout the Soviet Union, and sent Theremin on a trip around the world to demonstrate the latest Soviet technology and the invention of electronic music. After a lengthy tour of Europe, during which time he demonstrated his invention to packed houses, Theremin found his way to the United States, where he patented his invention in 1928 (US1661058). Subsequently, Theremin granted commercial production rights to RCA.

Although the RCA Thereminvox (released immediately following the Stock Market Crash of 1929), was not a commercial success, it fascinated audiences in America and abroad. Clara Rockmore, a well-known thereminist, toured to wide acclaim, performing a classical repertoire in concert halls around the United States, often sharing the bill with Paul Robeson.

It has also been variously called the Aetherphone, the Etherophone, and the Thereminvox.

The Theremin can be heard in the soundtracks for classic films such as The Red House, The Lost Weekend, The Spiral Staircase, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing (From Another World), The Ten Commandments, The She Creature, Queen of Blood, and even Jerry Lewis' The Delicate Delinquent. Most famously, the Theremin was used to great subtle effect during Salvador Dali's surrealist dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no Theremin music in Forbidden Planet - the Theremin-like electronic music in that film was generated by electronic circuits but did not involve using one's hands to control the sound.

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