Theremin, A Mania

This is a guest post by Steve Macfarlane

In keeping with the season, let’s talk a little bit about what is perhaps the most typecast instrument in the history of film scoring: the theremin.

You know it the instant you hear it – that flesh-tingling, blood-chilling, eyeball-popping, whistling-wheezing-whining sound burnt into your unconscious by dozens of sci-fi and horror movies. Romantic, enigmatic, tortured; the theremin’s mystique perpetuates itself one quivering note at a time.

A friend once told me she was close friends with a trained thereminist; eyebrows raised, I asked where one might go to see her perform live. “Not sure,” she responded. “She’s in an insane asylum.”

Leon Theremin

Leon Theremin plays his creation

In order to properly assess the instrument’s history, a little house-cleaning is necessary before we can even begin.

A theremin is not the same thing as the ondes martenot, used by Jonny Greenwood for There Will Be Blood, or a ring modulator, used by Louis and Bebe Barron for Forbidden Planet. And technically speaking, that’s not a theremin in the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, it’s something called a Tannerin”, a hands-on instrument made to emulate the sound of a true theremin.

A theremin is not a Moog, much like a rectangle is not a square, – although that synthesizer’s creator/namesake was a disciple of the Theremin’s inventor, Leon Sergeyevich Termen. Robert Moog himself built a theremin from a kit in a magazine as a high school student in 1949. He credits Termen with nothing less than the Big Bang of electronic music.

Termen. Alias: Theremin.

Parallel to its inventor’s sometimes jaw-dropping personal history, the theremin’s public career experienced two great peaks and, sure enough, two colossal dips: one in his native Russia, the other in the United States.

Born in St. Petersburg in 1896, Termen entered into a pact with the Soviet Union from day one. As a soldier in the Red Army, he had been dispatched to work with radio oscillations as an engineer in Petrograd. But whereas radio transmitters could only send waves long distances, Termen developed an antenna that could, when offset by human presence, throw distinct frequencies within a matter of square feet. Electrical power was the lifeblood of Lenin-era optimism, and Termen’s touch-free invention was originally intended as a kind of burglar alarm.

In his off hours, Termen developed the “etherphone”, a variation on the same idea with a similar octave range to the cello which, handily enough, Termen had studied as a youth. Using two antennae – one to control vertical pitch, the other to create a complementary electromagnetic field – he was able to “play” his new “instrument” with both hands. Termen’s post-Cold War interviews betray a remarkably detailed internalization of Bolshevik thinking:

“I conceived of an instrument that would create sound without using any mechanical energy, like the conductor of an orchestra. The orchestra plays mechanically, using mechanical energy; the conductor just moves his hands, and his movements have an effect on the music artistry [of the orchestra].”

After debuting his instrument – now called the “thereminvox” – at a Moscow electronics conference in 1921, Termen was summoned to the Kremlin for a demonstration. Following some prepping with Lenin’s secretary on piano, Termen reportedly showed the premier how to manipulate pitch with his hand to the tune of one of his favorites, Mikhail Glinka’s “Skylark”.

Elated, Lenin provided Termen with an all-access pass to the new Soviet train system, and the new instrument went on tour; first nationally, eventually to Germany and England, and finally, in 1927, to New York City.

Termen was celebrated for remarkable technical prowess, but also as a kind of magician; the man and the instrument were inextricable from each other. He secured a patent for the theremin in 1928 and leased the right to mass-produce theremins for RCA.

Back in the USSR, composer Dimitri Shostakovich became an early admirer of Termen’s work and incorporated the theremin into his second score, written for the early Mosfilm production Odna (Alone). The theremin fits naturally as an ethereal extension of traditional Russian throat singing, which factors into the narrative of the film.

In Shostakovich’s score, the sound of the instrument connotes a blinding snowstorm and you you can hear its tones swerve from pastoral beauty to harrowing uncertainty and back again in a matter of seconds.

Meanwhile, Termen’s exploits in the States were less focused on cinema than on engineering and fine arts. In a shrewd bit of mythmaking, he was now Leon Theremin, and his new friend and colleague Percy Grainger found the instrument to be a perfect test case for his concept of “free music”:

“In FREE MUSIC harmony will consist of free combinations (when desired) of all free intervals – not merely concordant or discordant combinations of set intervals (as in current music), but free combinations of all the intervals (but in a gliding state, not needfully in an anchored state) between present intervals…”

Grainger debuted “Free Music No. 1 For Four Theremins” in 1936. From his laboratory on West 54th, Theremin was hobnobbing with the likes of Albert Einstein, Leopold Stokowski, Edgard Varèse, Joseph Schillinger and Henry Cowell. And the entire time, he was collecting information on behalf of the Soviet government.

Theremin also fell in love in New York, with a young woman named Clara Rockmore (nee Reisenberg) who had emigrated from Russia with her family in 1921.

Rockmore had been a violin prodigy as a child, but life under Lenin drove the Reisenburgs to cross illegally into Lithuania and finally, onto a boat headed for America. Congenital bone deterioration prevented Rockmore from continuing to play, but she immediately took to the theremin.

Ga-ga for her, Theremin made modifications to his instrument at her request. She upped the number of octaves from three to five, and on her custom theremin-by-Theremin there were ten different timbre settings.

He proposed to her a handful of times, and she always said no.

Theremin’s personal story in the US ends in 1938, when he was curtly summoned back to the USSR. The reasons are still mysterious: Tax problems? Getting too cozy with the Americans?

Ultimately locked into lab work with other engineers and scientists as part of Stalin’s war effort under the KGB, Theremin was lost and forgotten to the West. In the immediate postwar era, his creation would take on its second life without the aid of its maker. It soon acquired its more notorious reputation, which would overshadow the high-minded renditions of Clara Rockmore and Shostakovich.

In 1944, Rockmore received a phone call from Hollywood composer Miklós Rózsa, who was tinkering with his score for Alfred Hitchcock’s romantic drama Spellbound. It’s one of the director’s most confrontationally weird films, with a narrative that wraps around a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dalí.

Rockmore turned Rózsa down in a pinch, as she was playing Bloch’s “Schlomo” with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Rózsa then called a musicians’ union and asked if any thereminists were around. There was one, a podiatrist named Samuel D. Hoffmann. He had become acquainted with the bizarre instrument when a debtor proposed bartering a theremin instead of paying him back. Another ex-violinist, Hoffman had been playing nights as “Hal Hope” for side money – newspaper articles date his “Electronic Trio” back to 1936.

Hoffmann was neither an engineer like Theremin nor an illustrious force of musical talent like Rockmore, but he could play. Following Spellbound, Hoffman became the go-to guy for theremin work in movies, and he and Rózsa collaborated again immediately on the score for Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. It was an unremittingly bleak studio picture starring Ray Milland as an alcoholic who falls – hard – off the wagon.

Hoffmann would have eight more soundtrack gigs before the year 1950: film noirs, science fiction, and horror pictures. Dripping with otherworldly trills, the scores often fit the mold disdainfully laid out by Rockmore in her 1977 interview with Moog: “new, eerie, strange, ugly, strident sounds.”

Rockmore’s critique might be less than fair, but it is true the theremin usually took only one of two roles in Hollywood scores: most often, it hovered above the horn/wind sections in the manner of a choral arrangement pushed just past human, as in Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for The Thing From Another World or Bernard Herrmann’s The Day The Earth Stood Still. Less common but more revealing was when the theremin was used to hemorrhage eerie notes into the orchestra, only to be extinguished by a full symphonic backlash that restored major themes to the conventional instruments, as in Rózsa’s full Spellbound concerto.

Perhaps the theremin was just not versatile enough. But it turned up in Peter Foldes’ celebrated, brain-melting, anti-nuclear animation A Short Vision, which made its stateside debut on The Ed Sullivan Show (of all places) in 1956. The piece, composed by Hungarian composer Mátyás Seiber, is maybe the best film score for theremin there is: insinuating frequencies stretched alongside nagging, dissonant strings – theremin used less for melody than for staying power.

The theremin did not seem to show up in romantic comedies or cartoons – although you can hear where Carl Stalling had it in his mind when he composed a hilariously twangy “anxiety montage” for macabre Looney Tunes settings. So was Rockmore wrong?

The instrument’s ascendency in Western culture occurred in near perfect parallel with its creator’s public evaporation.

Theremin, the man, was fastidiously developing new radio surveillance technology at the time for Lavrentiy Beria, administrator of Stalin’s gulag network, and dean of the Cold War’s first generation of Soviet secret police.

On assignment, Theremin managed to hide a recording bug in a special replica of the Great Seal of the United States which hung on the wall of the U.S. ambassador’s office for seven years before the Americans figured it out. He would retire from the KGB around 1966, much celebrated both here and there upon rediscovery. He died in 1993, with a number of proteges and followers, curiously, mostly women, who have done incredible contemporary things with the theremin: Barbara Buchholz, Lydia Kavina, Celia Sheen.

Rockmore’s performances – a few of which have been released on a mere two records, both thanks to Moog – are the real deal. If you’ve been conditioned to assume the theremin provides nothing more than some kind of two-bit spook house for the ears, try her take on Rachmaninoff’s Nocturne in C Minor, or Tchaikovsky’s “Bercuse”.

But in an irresistible turn, the most daring use of theremin is not by the vitruosic Rockmore to my ear, but by Hollywood’s Samuel Hoffmann: In the late 1940s he teamed up with a very young Les Baxter to release a series of space-themed proto-lounge albums and cash in on his mastery of the instrument. (It worked.)

Music Out Of The Moon sees the theremin reaching ecstatic heights paired with gee-whiz choral maneuvering. The result sounds something like human souls happily ascending into the afterlife. And skipping out on it means denying yourself the full range of Theremin.

Steve Macfarlane is a writer who lives in New York City. He is a regular contributor to The L Magazine and a longtime curator for Cinebeasts.

This entry was posted in Featured Stories, Guest Posts, Music: Making it, Listening to it., October 2012, Technology. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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