News / USA

Unusual Instrument Emits Good Vibrations

Theremin produced one of the earliest electronic sounds

Arthur Harrison demonstrates the theremin.  His design, unlike the original, uses flat plates instead of the more conventional antennas.
Arthur Harrison demonstrates the theremin. His design, unlike the original, uses flat plates instead of the more conventional antennas.

Multimedia

Audio

Electronic music has been around a long time, and in the digital age, it seems to be everywhere. But one electronic instrument that has been around for nearly a century stands apart from the rest.

"The theremin stands out as being so unique and so marvelous it just attracted me for that reason alone," says Arthur Harrison, whose interest in the instrument dates back nearly four decades.

"When I was in college back in 1974, I had a roommate who was majoring in music and one day he brought home a theremin." Harrison, who always enjoyed tinkering with electronics, decided to take it apart and improve on the design. Twenty years later he began building his own designs, and Harrison Instruments was founded. Since then he has sold thousands of theremins, from simple build-it yourself kits to professional grade instruments.

One thing that makes the instrument unique is the fact that you don't touch it to play it. Harrison demonstrates on his 302 model, a small, rectangular black metal box on a pedestal. A metal plate extends from either side of the box.

Harrison moves his hands up and down above the plates to produce music, which is emitted from an amplifier. "As my right hand gets closer to the plate, the pitch goes up." His left hand controls the volume in a similar way with the plate on the left.

The plates, which are commonly referred to as antennas, are actually electrodes. "The theremin, in its classic form, is measuring the amount of capacitance between each of the player’s hands and its antennas," Harrison explains. As he moves his hands, the amount of electrical energy varies, changing the current in the circuits, which control the frequency and volume.

Early history

Harrison developed the design with the flat plates. Most theremins, including the original one created by Leon Theremin in 1919, have one vertical antenna and one horizontal. Theremin, a Russian scientist, was endorsed by the Soviet leader, Vladimir Lenin. "Lenin told him to go West and show the world this great Soviet achievement," Harrison says. Theremin was supposed to spy on the United States while he was here, but Harrison says, "Leon Theremin had his heart more in the instrument and music than anything."

Inventor Leon Theremin playing his instrument in concert, c. 1924.
Inventor Leon Theremin playing his instrument in concert, c. 1924.

When he arrived in the U.S. in 1927, Theremin became an instant celebrity. His instrument was patented and produced by RCA, but with a price tag similar to that of a baby grand piano, not many were sold, especially after the stock market crash of 1929.

Clara Rockmore, a protégé of the inventor, is considered the greatest thereminist of all time. Born in Lithuania, she immigrated to the United States in 1921.

"She was a remarkable musician who started out as a childhood violinist, but developed a physical malady that prevented her from playing," Harrison says. Leon Theremin built one of his instruments to her specifications, launching her on a new musical career.

Theremins in popular culture

Because of its distinctive sound, the theremin has been used by a number of composers scoring films that needed something eerie or other-worldly. Miklos Rozsa used the instrument in "The Lost Weekend" and "Spellbound." Bernard Herrmann used it in the soundtrack of the 1951 film "The Day the Earth Stood Still."

After that, Harrison says, the theremin was featured in a lot of sci-fi film scores. "For a long period of time it was relegated to more of a sound effects device."

The theremin has been used by some rock musicians, including Jimmy Page of Led Zepplin, but Harrison says it is a common misconception that the Beach Boys used it one of their hits. "A fellow named Paul Tanner had created a slide electronic oscillator, to emulate the sound of a theremin. He was called upon by the Beach Boys to do the riff in 'Good Vibrations,' which many people erroneously believe was a theremin."

Although Harrison has had several professional gigs as a musician, he considers himself first and foremost a designer of theremins. "When I began building the Theremins and began coming up with what I thought were better and better designs, I had no intention to play them, but of course if you are making them, invariably, in order to test the design you have to play them."

Harrison will be playing even more later this year when his Washington-based band, The Cassettes, gets back together after being on hiatus since 2008. For now he is busy building theremins and helping others build them via his website, Art’s Theremin Page.

You May Like

US Investors Eye IPO for China's Alibaba

E-commerce giant handled 80 percent of China's online business last year, logging more Internet transactions than US-based Amazon.com and eBay combined More

Video Uneasy Calm Settles Over Israel, Gaza Strip

As cease-fire begins, Palestinians celebrate in streets; Israelis remain wary More

Video Chinese Doctors Use 3-D Spinal Implant

In treatment of a 12-year-old boy Chinese doctors used a 3-D printer and special software to create an exact replica of vertebra More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Chinese Doctors Use 3-D Spinal Implanti
X
August 27, 2014 4:53 PM
A Chinese boy suffering from a debilitating bone disease has become the first patient with a part of his spine created in a three-dimensional printer. Doctors say he will soon regain normal mobility. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Chinese Doctors Use 3-D Spinal Implant

A Chinese boy suffering from a debilitating bone disease has become the first patient with a part of his spine created in a three-dimensional printer. Doctors say he will soon regain normal mobility. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Uneasy Calm Settles Over Israel, Gaza Strip

Israel and the Gaza Strip have been calm since a cease-fire set in Tuesday evening, ending seven weeks of hostilities. Hamas, which controls Gaza, declared victory. Israelis were more wart. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jerusalem.
Video

Video India’s Leprosy Battle Stymied by Continuing Stigma

Medical advancements in the treatment of leprosy have greatly diminished its impact around the world, largely eliminating the disease from most countries. India made great strides in combating leprosy, but still accounts for a majority of the world’s new cases each year, and the number of newly infected Indians is rising - more than 130,000 recorded last year. Doctors there say the problem has more to do with society than science. VOA News reports from Kolkata.
Video

Video Northern California Quake: No Way to Know When Next One Will Hit

A magnitude 6.0 earthquake rocked northern California’s Napa Valley on Sunday. Roads twisted and water mains burst. It was the wine country’s most severe quake in 15 years, and while hospitals treated many people, no one was killed. Arash Arabasadi has more from Washington on what the future may hold for those residents living on a fault line.
Video

Video Scientists Unlock Mystery of Bird Flocks

How can flocks of birds, schools of fish or herds of antelope suddenly change direction -- all the individuals adjusting their movement in concert, at seemingly the same time? British researchers now have some insights into this behavior, which has puzzled scientists for a long time. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ukraine: Captured Troops Proof of Russian Role in Separatist Fight

Ukrainian officials say they have captured Russian soldiers on Ukrainian territory -- the latest accusation of Moscow's involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the Ukrainian side of the battle, where soldiers are convinced of Russia's role.
Video

Video Rubber May Soon Come From Dandelions

Synthetic rubber has been around for more than a century, but quality tires for cars, trucks and aircraft still need up to 40 percent or more natural rubber content. As the source of natural rubber, the rubber tree, is prone to disease and can be affected by bad weather. So scientists are looking for replacements. And as VOA’s George Putic reports, they may have found one in a ubiquitous weed.
Video

Video Jewish Life in Argentina Reflected in Yiddish Tango

Jewish people from across Europe and Russia have been immigrating to Argentina for hundreds of years. They brought with them dance music that were eventually mixed with Argentine tango. The result is Yiddish tango -- a fusion of melodies and cultural experiences that is still evolving today. Elizabeth Lee reports from the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, where one band is bringing Yiddish tango to an American audience.

AppleAndroid