The Theremin was the brainchild of Prof. Leon Theremin, a Russian born Scientist, experimenter and electronics pioneer. Theremin lived and worked in New York City in the 20′s and 30′s and his story has as many mysterious and sinister twists and turns as the music that eminates from a well- played Theremin.
The theremin is unlike any other musical instrument in that you don’t actually touch the theremin while you play it. You just sort of wave your hands around in front of it. The proximity of your hands to the antannae alters the pitch and volume. In case you are not theremin aware, this is what they sound like.
I wont go into the whole history but there is an excellent film that tells the whole tale. RCA had plans to mass-market the instrument, with the hopes that every cultured home would have one in the parlor (a sort of precursor to the Hammond organ). They made a deal in 1929 to produce and distribute Theremins, producing an initial run of 200 units. The ad campaign failed to convince the public that they needed a Theremin and those who did buy one had difficulty mastering it.
The theremin is indeed difficult play if your goal is to “wave” up a rendition of a piano concerto, or some popular tune. In fact many consider Clara Rockmore to be the only person to truly master the instrument. A CD of Rockmore’s recordings entitled “The Art of The Theremin” is available. (Delos d/cd 1024).
Although it never caught on with the public, The instrument maintained a following amoung the avante-garde and was popular during the 50′s and 60′s for use in Horror and Sci-Fi film soundtracks,as well as amoung composers of popular “Exotica” and Lounge genre recordings. Although the Theremin may not have been much of a comercial success, its’ impact on the evolution of popular music was profound. The Theremin was the first electronic musical instrument, and the inspiration for other electronic music pioneers.
Robert Moog got his start in fact building and playing theremins as a younster in th e1940′s. Certainly, Popular music would not have followed the evolutionary path that it did, had Moog not become interested in electronic music, and gone on to make the later developments that he made. Now Moog has returned to his roots and is having qute a bit of success with his Etherwave line of theremins.
Right about the time of the beginning of the lastest revival in interest in theremins, I happen to glance at at the cover of an issue of Electronics Now magazine and saw was was unmistakably a Theremin! When I found out that I could build my own solid-state Theremin for around 80 bucks, I got out my checkbook.
The kit is called the Theremax and is put together by PAIA Electronics. The kit is avialable as either an electronic components only package, or you can get the optional wooden lectern kit. I went with the first option as I had elaborate plans to build a retro-futuristic, wooden case with a lighted, ground-glass oscilliscope-like screen set into the front onto which laser patterns would be rear-projected, the light bouncing off of mirrors that would be mounted to the internal speaker, which was driven by the 80 watt tube amp that I took out of a movie projector ……..Of course, In the end, I went with the RadioShack small metal enclosure.
The Theremax kit comes with an easy to follow instruction book, with good schematics and diagrams. It is a very approachable beginners electronic kit for someone with at least a little soldering experience. The most challenging thing about building the theremax was tuning the occilators. PIAA has a very accomodating tech-support policy, they helped me troubleshoot the circuit after I had completed the assembly and the thing didnt work. (my own fault).