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theremin

electrophone

The theremin was invented by the Russian engineer Lev Termen. As a cellist and radio specialist in the Red Army, he attempted to combine his passion for music with his expertise in physics, and this led in 1918 to the creation of the thereminvox or, in short, theremin.

The instrument is operated according to a simple acoustic principle: two oscillators generate two ultrasonic tones; varying the distance between the player's hands and the upright antenna serves to create a difference between these two high frequencies, and this results in an audible sound signal.

Lenin, jubilant about this new invention, sent Termen abroad to trumpet the Soviet Union's technological superiority and his new invention attracted full houses. Composers such as Varèse and Schnittke had no hesitation in composing for the instrument, and its expressive power was also exploited to the full in film music. In 1938, however, while he was in the United States, Termen was abducted by the Russian secret service. During a long imprisonment he was forced to place his knowledge at the service of espionage. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, he was able once more to travel to the West, where interest in the theremin was reviving. It appeared in recordings by popular music groups such as Led Zeppelin, Portishead and Radiohead. A modern version of the instrument was put into production under the name Big Briar by that other pioneer of electronic musical instruments, Robert Moog.

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theremin, Big Briar, 1991, inv.1997.031
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Disclaimer: 
Lev Termen demonstrating his own instrument. The mim cannot be held responsible for the contents in this link.