On its 100th Anniversary, the World's First Electronic Instrument Continues to Awe
Ethereal hums buzz around the walls of an industrial storage room in Williamsburg, now used as a makeshift classroom. It’s a brisk March afternoon, and the renowned theremin performer and instructor Dorit Chrysler guides nine eager participants in an interactive lesson about the theremin—the world’s oldest electronic instrument and the only one that produces sounds without any direct contact from the player.
“We have a beautiful dissonant cluster here,” says Chrysler. That’s a generous way of saying that everyone is a little out of tune but showing improvement.
Besides frequent lessons like the one in Williamsburg, Chrysler hosts theremin-building workshops, orchestral performances, and kids classes as the cofounder of the NY Theremin Society. She also collaborates with theremin players around the world and advocates for the instrument’s legitimization in prestigious music circles.
The theremin turns 100 this year, at a time when for decades now musicians and recording artists have opted for software and digital synthesizers to replace the sounds of analog instruments. But an ever-growing community of theremin players is fighting to keep the instrument alive, despite its obscure origins and challenging learning curve. They point to the meditative qualities of playing the theremin as well as the expressive, haunting sound that the instrument produces, which can’t be fully replicated digitally.
The theremin was created accidentally when an eccentric Russian scientist named Léon Theremin was experimenting with electromagnetic fields. He noticed he could alter the pitch of a sound by moving his hands around an antenna and gradually turned his discovery into a musical instrument. Theremin developed new prototypes until he came up with one that included two antennas—one for controlling volume, the other pitch—as recounted by Albert Glinsky in his book, Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage.
In the late 1920s, Theremin landed in New York City and secured a deal with RCA to create a mass-produced version of the instrument, using commonly available parts. Although it never gained mainstream success, the theremin became an important feature of New York’s avant-garde music scene. The instrument and its descendants appeared in everything from pop songs like the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” to the eerie sound effects in horror films.
More recently, the NY Theremin Society has curated performances at ISSUE Project Room, Pioneer Works, and other experimental venues across the city. An album released by the NY Theremin Society to celebrate the instrument’s 100th anniversary features pieces by musicians from 18 countries, including Japan, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. Japan, in particular, has cultivated a vibrant theremin scene, and in 2013, 272 players set a world record for the largest theremin ensemble ever assembled.
Theremin performances are inherently theatrical—players’ expressive movements translate directly to the sounds that the audience hears. The act of playing is also a metaphysical experience for many performers who become hyper aware of subtle body movements and breaths that shift the instrument’s pitch. As Chrysler puts it, “your body is turned into the instrument.” For example, rapidly moving one’s hand back and forth causes the theremin to quiver, like a guitar’s whammy bar or the vibrato of an opera singer.
“On a good day, when things are really working, you imagine that you can feel the air,” says composer and thereminist Rob Schwimmer.
Schwimmer has worked with acts as varied as the pop supergroup Simon & Garfunkel and Grammy-award winning jazz musician Esperanza Spalding. He says the theremin’s idiosyncrasies are also what make it especially difficult to play, especially at the beginning stages. “I was convinced a few times it had to be a hoax because it was the most impossible thing,” Schwimmer says.
Electronic music pioneer Robert Moog cited the theremin as his inspiration to begin exploring electronic sounds in the mid-20th century. Although Moog became most famous for creating the first commercial synthesizer, his company also helped popularize the theremin by producing its own versions of the instrument. Moog’s modern edition, The Theremini—now equipped with numerous tonal choices and pitch-correction applications—is among the most commonly available models today.
When the theremin became accessible to the public, it was often misunderstood as a gimmicky toy that was only capable of producing strange sound effects. With no reference points, like piano keys or guitar strings, novices found it particularly difficult to play coherent melodies.
Although the number of casual theremin players has ballooned in recent years, partly because of reduced production costs, Schwimmer says the community of professional, classically-trained players remains relatively tight-knit.
Besides teaching newcomers about the theremin’s history, players hope to promote its respect in prominent music institutions and orchestral settings. Chrysler, for her part, has performed in Russia with the descendants of Theremin himself and, in an ode to the theremin’s scientific roots, she has also played the instrument deep underground at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, where scientists study particle physics.
Back at the theremin workshop, students were mesmerized by the wispy sounds of Chrysler’s theremin as she performed “The Swan,” an elegant melody that Theremin often played for spectators. When it was their turn to play, the musicians were still struggling to hold a single note. They were hooked, nonetheless, by the cosmic power of the instrument. They noticed, perhaps for the first time, that their fingers could wield sounds out of thin air.