1/23/14

Thoughts on Music #16 (Connor on the theremin)

Leon Theremin playing the theremin
While preparing for an exam presentation a year ago (which went over well and also resulted in this previous blog post) I came across an intriguing article on "atmospherics" by Steven Connor. In the following two paragraphs he gives an evocative account of the invention and public introduction of the theremin:
"...Lev, later Leon Theremin, was a Russian radio scientist, who was working on devices that would automatically sense human bodies, when he discovered that, by introducing his hand into a tuned circut involving a gas, he could induce a change in the capacity of the circuit, which altered the pitch of the tone that the circuit delivered. From this was born the idea for an instrument that could be played by hand movements in the air alone. Soon he had added a second circuit, a horizontal loop to be manipulated by the left hand, which controlled volume. By 1920, he had completed the first working version of an instrument he called the 'etherphone'. He quickly became a celebrity in his native Russia, at that period still enthusiastically encouraging technological invention. In 1927, Theremin set out to demonstrate his instrument in a series of concerts and performances in Europe and the UK.

The instrument caused rapture and suspicion in equal measure. Some saw in the new instrument an actualisation of the desire to escape the fixed pitches and intervals bequeathed by the Western musical tradition. With an instrument like the theremin, as it was now increasingly known, it was possible to play between established pitches and colours. It was an instrument of inbetweenness, the musical equivalent of tuning between stations, in a kind of free, as yet unpopulated and uncharted radiomusical space. In a sense it was pure atmospherics, promising a world where there would be no necessity for instruments at all. Later in his life, Theremin would experiment with instruments that could be played simply by movements of the eyes, or even by thoughts alone. [...] And yet, the music which the theremin produced was a product not of removing the body from the circuit, but of introducing the body into it. In a sense, it was all interference."
-Steven Connor, "Atmospherics", pp. 29-30.

Later in the 20th century the theremin was associated with science fiction and became a soundtrack staple in sci-fi cinema and TV. That's hardly a surprise when you read these lines: "It was an instrument of inbetweenness, the musical equivalent of tuning between stations, in a kind of free, as yet unpopulated and uncharted radiomusical space. In a sense it was pure atmospherics, promising a world where there would be no necessity for instruments at all."



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