August 11, 2002
10:57 PM   Subscribe

Leon Sergeivitch Termen, born in Russia and later a US resident, is best known as the inventor of The Theremin, the first real electronic instrument. The Theremin is played by standing and wavings one's hands. It was used to give a futuristic sound to classic sci-fi films and still looks plenty sci-fi when played[quicktime clip] and the music it produces is strange and beautiful[real player].
Old Leon himself ended up getting kidnapped by Soviet agents and sent to a Siberian prison camp. After his release, he continued to work for the KGB, creating one of the first "bugs" -- then used to eavesdrop on the American Embassy. He was mostly unaware of the fate of his eponymous instrument. Meanwhile, his former lover, Clara Rockmore, went on to try and change the thermin from novelty to serious instrument, she even had her own unique playing style (heard in the real player clip above). Want to play? build your own, or download your own, and join the whole odd subculture.
posted by malphigian (25 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Tom Waits uses the theremin in some of his music.
posted by Keyser Soze at 11:42 PM on August 11, 2002

An instrument based on the theremin, the ondes martenot, is a Radiohead mainstay. Johnny Greenwood plays one on their song "How to Disappear Completely."
posted by josephtate at 11:49 PM on August 11, 2002

*waves hands in air*
posted by y2karl at 12:31 AM on August 12, 2002

Portishead used the theremin very well in Mysterons. Really creepy-cheesy wails. A theremin also sees a lot of action at Nine Inch Nails live shows. It's so filtered though you cant tell by just listening.

I tried to build one years ago, but my ambition far outstripped my ability with a soldering iron. Maybe I'll have another go. Thanks for the links.
posted by jackiemcghee at 1:03 AM on August 12, 2002

Not sure if it's covered above, but there's also the film Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey which includes footage of Rockmore (archive and around 1990), Termen himself as well as Bob Moog (who started out building the things) and others.

It's fascinating to watch the precision with which Rockmore plays. Is there anyone left who actually uses it as an instrument rather than just waving their arms around in front of it to make whale/metal detector noises? I know there's at least one concert standard Ondes Martenot player because people want to perform the Turungalîla Symphonie occasionally.
posted by Grangousier at 1:06 AM on August 12, 2002

I didn't know this:
The Beach Boys didn't use a theremin at all in 'Good Vibrations' - at least not a standard model. What they used was an Electro - Theremin, a device invented and played by Dr. Paul Tanner
I feel somewhat cheated.
posted by soundofsuburbia at 1:49 AM on August 12, 2002

...and, oh yeah, don't forget the teleharmonium! As long as we're talking early electronic instruments, that is.
posted by soundofsuburbia at 2:18 AM on August 12, 2002

two words.

rocket science

the best band you've never heard. guitars, drums, bass, yamaha organ and theremin. impossible not to dance to. come highly recomended by supergrass.
posted by cheaily at 3:33 AM on August 12, 2002

The theme song to Star Trek was created by the theremin. I always thought it was some woman with a bizarre talent who sang it. That Gene Roddenberry, go figure.

Also, Badly Drawn Boy has some T on his Bewilderbeast album.

Neat links, malphigian, and answers some questions I had almost a year ago when I went looking for info about the theremin and found almost nothing. The theremin player is way cool, too!
posted by ashbury at 5:11 AM on August 12, 2002

Hello, Tech Support? I downloaded a virtual theramin, and now my mouse has gone wacky!
posted by Domain Master 666 at 5:21 AM on August 12, 2002

Thank you so much. I was so impressed, I jonesed the whole thing onto my crappy blog. Thanks malphigian.
posted by hama7 at 6:07 AM on August 12, 2002

ashbury: actually, that's the ondes martenot on the star trek theme, as mentioned above by josephtate.
posted by cheaily at 6:46 AM on August 12, 2002

The eeriest thing about Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey is the Brian Wilson footage.
posted by HellKatonWheelz at 6:51 AM on August 12, 2002

Yeah, it's amazing that a near-senile, 85 year old Russian man with little grasp left on the English language managed to seem 3 times more cognizent than Brian Wilson.
posted by Pinwheel at 6:59 AM on August 12, 2002

cheaily, I stand corrected, my apologies. At least they're related, tho, so I'm not that far off base.
posted by ashbury at 7:00 AM on August 12, 2002

man... or astroman? uses one of these as well as a tesla coil and a dot matrix printer.
posted by ggggarret at 7:15 AM on August 12, 2002

You can't go wrong with Big Briar (aka Bob Moog), but the truly affordable kit is the Paia Theremax.
posted by O9scar at 7:40 AM on August 12, 2002

posted by sgt.serenity at 7:53 AM on August 12, 2002 [1 favorite]

what's a liffey?
posted by deathofme at 8:26 AM on August 12, 2002

Interesting coincidence, there's one for sale at the music shop in the Sanitary Market in Seattle. I was walking past Friday, and noticed it in the window.
posted by nomisxid at 9:16 AM on August 12, 2002

nice. reminds me of the sound of the musical saw (rather awful real player clip but you get the idea), which might be a bit cheaper to learn. It even seems some theremin players swing both ways
posted by gravelshoes at 9:18 AM on August 12, 2002

ThereminWorld is a pretty good resource for theremin information.
It includes some stuff about the 1929 RCA theremin that was recently up for auction on eBay. The RCA theremin was the first commercially available theremin and is still considered one of the best sounding. Only 500 were originally produced, and only about half of those are expected to still be in existence.
And you can't forget that Jon Spencer Blues Explosion uses (or used may be a better word) a 1960's Moog Vanguard theremin.
Thereminworld also has a list of bands that use theremins.
posted by itchyrobot at 9:20 AM on August 12, 2002

Tim DeLaughter's 27 member choral symphonic pop band Polyphonic Spree has a theremin player as well. With the tent-rivial meets rock concert feel of their shows, it's wild watching the sharp movements of the thermin player as he rocks out.
posted by betaray at 10:17 AM on August 12, 2002

*waves hands in air*

Clearly, y2karl just doesn't care.
posted by kindall at 12:56 PM on August 12, 2002

cheaily: let's review.

tom waits
man... or astroman?
jon spencer blues explosion
the beach boys

all extremely talented.

rocket science

trite, gimmicky, cheesy, over-produced crap.

(admittedly an opinion based solely upon the two sample tracks on their website... but isn't that what sample tracks are for? thanks for pointing them out; now i know never to buy a cd or go to a show.)
posted by mlang at 4:00 AM on August 13, 2002

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