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.
I was interested in making a different kind of instrument. And I wanted, of course, to make an apparatus that would be controlled in space, exploiting electrical fields, and that would use little energy. Therefore I used electronic technology to create a musical instrument that would provide greater resources.
There was one man who was interested in the color of music, the connection between light and music, and that was Einstein.
“Music, in performance, is a type of sculpture. The air in the performance is sculpted into something.”
– Frank Zappa
Some of Theremin’s inventions
- Theremin – the classic Theremin (1920)
- Burglar alarm, or “Signalling Apparatus” which used the Theremin effect (1920s)
- Electromechanical television – Nipkow disk with mirrors instead of slots (ca. 1925)
- Terpsitone – platform that converts dance movements into tones (1932)
- Theremin cello – an electronic cello with no strings and no bow, using a plastic fingerboard, a handle for volume and two knobs for sound shaping (ca. 1930)
- Keyboard theremin (ca. 1930), looking like a small piano, “with hornlike tones”
- Rhythmicon – world’s first drum machine (1931)
- The Buran eavesdropping device (1947 or earlier)
- The Great Seal bug, also known as “The Thing” – one of the first passive covert listening devices; first used by the USSR for spying (1945 or earlier)
Léon Theremin is the subject of the feature-length documentary film, Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, written, directed, and produced by Steven M. Martin. A selection of the New York Film Festival, the film won the Filmmakers Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994, a Golden Gate Award at the San Francisco Film Festival, was nominated for both an International Emmy and a British Academy Award, and has been presented both at the National Gallery in Washington and by invitation from the Russian Ministry of Culture at Dom Kino in Saint Petersburg. Released in America by MGM, the film features thereminist Clara Rockmore, electronic instrument pioneer Robert Moog, Nicolas Slonimsky, The Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson and Theremin himself.
Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey sparked a resurgence of interest in both Theremin and his work. After the film’s release, Moog, a long time champion of Theremin’s work who also appeared in the film, resumed manufacturing theremin instruments. Thousands are now sold annually around the world