Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Oooh-EEE-ooooh!

Growing up as I did in the ancient days before either home video or cable TV were ubiquitous, my first encounters with cinematic sci-fi was watching old films on Saturday afternoons. A lot of these films weren't particularly good, but many of them, like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet to mention just two, were and they played an incalculable role in forming my imagination. Even now, more than three decades later, the influence of those SF movies remains powerful, such as my fondness for the theremin.

The theremin, in case you've never heard the word before, is an electronic musical instrument invented in 1928 by the Russian inventor Lev Termen, known in the West as Léon Theremin, after whom the instrument is named. Here's a video of the man himself demonstrating its use:

During the 1950s, the theremin was used a great deal -- some would say overused -- in science fiction films, which is why I so strongly associate its distinctive sound with the genre. It definitely has an otherworldly quality to it that conjures up alien vistas for me. I understand that to many other people, the theremin sound represents cheesy sci-fi and so they abominate its use. I can understand that. Watch enough Ed Wood-level schlock and there's a good chance you'll hate the theremin, too. Not me, though. In fact, I'd like to hear it used more often.

(As an aside, it's worth mentioning that the soundtrack to Forbidden Planet did not make use of the theremin. Instead, composers Louis and Bebe Barron made that movie's music completely electronically, which is to say, without the use any instruments beyond electronic circuits, whose noises they then manipulated by playing them backward and forward and otherwise modulating them to produce the desired sounds. Considering that they did this nearly a decade before the invention of the first synthesizer, it's a pretty impressive accomplishment.)

19 comments:

  1. Theremin was an interesting guy with an interesting story. He also invented a passive bug that was (IIRC) installed in the American embassy in Moscow. It worked kind of like the RFID tags we have today. Netflix streaming has a documentary about him and the instrument.

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  2. One of my other interests is in the branch of experimental music known as noise. The theremin actually had a kind of mini-comeback in the noise genre, which is why I've known two people who have used theremins on stage.

    There's an open-source project to creare plans for a sub-$30 theremin called One Theremin Per Child.

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  3. NPR did a fascinating 9-minute segment on Louis and Bebe Barron, including an interview with Bebe -- http://n.pr/pAGHb1.

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  4. Bob Moog,one of the inventors of the electronic synthsizer, paid for his university by building and selling therimin kits. His kit is still in production, albeit more elaborate.

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  5. If you listen to a lot of Led Zeppelin then you have heard some good use of the theremin. Jimmy Page used it quite a bit to create soundscapes in their songs. I like it.

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  6. Who doesn't enjoy a good theremin, or theremin-like sounds anyway?

    "Good Vibrations" from the Beach Boys wouldn't be the same without those theremin-esque sounds, and I'd certainly say the iconic "Doctor Who" theme was clearly influenced by those classic theremin sounds.

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  7. Incidentaly, the Theremin was first named Athereophone by Lev Theremin, which is a much cooler named than just his last name. It uses the same sort of high-frequency heterodyning oscillators as the really cool Ondes Martenot.

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  8. In addition to Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love and Good Vibrations, see the Pixies' Velouria and most of John Spencer Blues Explosion Extra Width for other later non-pulpy theremin.

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  9. I saw this thereminist, Armen-Ra, open for Grinderman last year in Seattle. It was a quite enjoyable act and the audience just ate it up... a little surprising because that is a raucous crowd waiting to see Nick Cave!

    http://armenra.com/

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  10. I was lucky enough to grow up a block away from The Fox Venice, a local revival theater (now sadly a small shopping mall). I sometimes went three nights a week or more (I had a buddy who got free tickets all the time), and saw these old greats, plus more "modern" stuff that expanded my mind, such as Rocky Horror, Phantom of the Paradise, Clockwork Orange, A Boy and His Dog (mostly stuff they never showed on TV), etc.

    I have musician buddy who got into the Theramin a few years ago, and he ended up playing it a bit at another friends wedding I was a bagpiper at.

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  11. We have a couple of Theramins at home (Moog kits). Let me tell you, these little mofos are very difficult. You have to have a really good ear and absolute muscular control (across your whole body as posture is so critical and the only comfortable playing position for me is standing) to play well.

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  12. The Beach Boys used a Tannerin, which was also known as an electro-theremin. Paul Tanner, one of the inventors, played the Tannerin himself on the Boys' three songs it was featured ("Good Vibrations", "Wild Honey", "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times").

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  13. As someone mentioned before there is a pretty good documentary about the inventor and his invention.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108323/

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  14. this makes me want a theremin in my GM toolbox, can't believe i didn't think of that before.

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  15. For the iPhone/iPad folks out there, there's a synthesizer app named Bebot which includes a theremin sound.

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  16. I love the theremin! I'm also of the pre-cable television generation and have many fond memories of Saturday afternoon SF entertainment.

    I wrote a blog post about the theremin back in August, linking to various vids that showcased the instrument. I especially enjoy Carolina Eyck's recent work with it.

    Yeah, I'm a theremin fanboy. ;-)

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  17. You can get really small, easily portable theremins. I have one in particular that's about 2"x3"x3" and can easily fit in anyone's backpack. Just gotta look around.

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  18. Theremins can be built into all sorts of other objects. The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band had one inside the leg of a shop window dummy (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHWFJYoi5tM&feature=related), but the best one I saw was used by a Hawkwind tribute band (name long forgotten) who had one built into a hat made from an old colander and a couple of tea strainers. The aerial came out of the top and had a flying saucer hung in front of the players face and he activated it with a glove puppet of Zebedee from the old kids show 'The Magic Roundabout'.

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