The theremin, featured in such varied musical genres as scary movie soundtracks to the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” is an instrument you probably recognize by sound if not by sight or name. On the occasion of Rob Schwimmer’s theremin performance and workshops in the Samek during the week of Halloween, I will explore the history of the instrument and its eponymous inventor’s somewhat storied past.
Considered the father of all electronic musical instruments, the theremin was accidentally devised in 1920 by the Russian inventor, cellist, and physicist Léon Theremin in the course of developing proximity sensors for the Russian government. Vladimir Lenin was reportedly so taken with Theremin’s creation that he sent him on an international tour, culminating in a trip to the United States in 1928. The instrument, although popular with crowds, was not a commercial success due to the difficulty of playing it. It is peculiar in that the player does not actually touch the instrument. There are no fingerings or chords to learn; the act of playing is largely intuitive and nuanced. The theremin is comprised of a rectangular box which contains coils and wires; these create an electromagnetic field. There are 2 antennae attached: the rounded, horizontal antenna (seen at the right) controls the volume, and the vertical antenna adjusts the pitch. As an object (such as the player’s hands) enters the field, the frequency of the waves is altered, creating the chilling sound you hear.
In a hazy series of events, Theremin returned to the Soviet Union in 1938 and was imprisoned for 7 years, some of which was spent in a sharashka, a secret laboratory within the Gulag labor camp system. During these years, he began work on an eavesdropping device known as “The Thing.” This was a tiny bug implanted into a carved wooden plaque of the Great Seal of the United States and gifted to the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union by a group of Soviet schoolchildren as a “gesture of friendship” to their ally in World War II. The plaque with the embedded device remained in the ambassador’s office in Moscow, intercepting all conversations, until it was discovered in 1952.
Interested in hearing the theremin and seeing how it’s played? Come out to the Samek on Monday, October 29 from 5-7pm for a reception featuring a performance by accomplished theremin artist Rob Schwimmer.