"Good Vibrations," the Beach Boys' 1966 chart topper, tries to make it sound like a happy, friendly musical instrument.*
But _we_ know the Truth, don't we!
Despite being a relatively "new" musical device, the Theremin has one of the most interesting histories of all instruments.
The Theremin was developed between 1918 and 1928 by Léon Theremin (nee Lev Sergeyevich Termen, 1896-1993), a Russian technical whiz who also invented the motion detector and had a hand in the early evolution of television. After dabbling in Captialism -- RCA manufactured the Theremin beginning in 1929 -- he mysteriously returned to the Soviet Union in 1938 and designed various devices for the KGB. He died in Moscow at the ripe old age of 97.
Why did Theremin "disappear" from the USA in 1938? The consensus is that RCA's Theremin didn't exactly turn out to be the hit that the capitalist stooges anticipated. When the USA's G-men started asking Theremin where all his RCA money went, Léon hit the proverbial road.
Astoundingly (to me, anyway), RCA advertised the Theremin as the easiest of instruments to play! The general public (who also soon faced the Great Depression) literally didn't buy it. Here's why.
The Theremin is essentially a box that sprouts two antennae. Typically, the horizontal antenna on the left controls volume while the vertical antenna on the right manipulates pitch. By moving his or her hands in the proximity of the antennae, the performer generates music without touching anything.
In one sense, then, RCA was right. If you want to make a sound with a Theremin, all you have to do is stand right up next to it. Easy! But if you want to play traditional music that involves discreet, well-defined pitches, the learning curve suddenly turns vertical. The tiniest gesture will produce an audible change in musical output. For subtle nuances, the movement of a whole hand is waaay too much. You simply wiggle fingers. Even the movement of your chest as you breathe can create sonic changes you'd wish you didn't have to deal with. And you'd better be set up with plenty of open space around you because if a cat happens to amble past ....
Beyond the struggle with sensitivity, there's the straightforward frustration of having nothing to grab or poke or whack. On a piano, all the notes are right in front of you (except for the ones in the cracks between the keys). On a violin or trombone, at least you have a certain amount of physical resistance, even if you don't have frets or valves to keep you firmly in tune. You have to be very well anchored in front of a Theremin because your spatial awareness is the only thing that will keep you harmonious.
Of course, if it's Halloween, who cares if you're in tune or not! Trick or treat!
That's the only time I usually play: Halloween.
Robert Moog (the famous synth designer) got his start as a Theremin builder when he was a kid. You can buy nice Theremins (finished or in kit form) today!
I bought my Etherwave Theremin Kit in 1999 and I doubt that the design has changed since then. Even though the Theremin's reputation may lead you to believe that it is powered by goat's blood (hey Trader Joe's!) and only comes to life every Friday the 13th, in fact it looks rather mundane. A simple wooden box with a few knobs on the front and a couple of pieces of metal sticking out is all you get.
The Etherwave kit is very easy to assemble. If you have any electronics chops at all, putting the Etherwave together yourself is cake (although it will only save you $40). The sound is what you'd expect from a Moog product: A nice fat Theremin-y timbre that can be tweaked a bit for taste. If you're looking for all sorts of presets and fancy digital signal processing that you have on your Yamaha keyboard, look elsewhere. This aetherial baby is all analog.
Once built, all you have to do is learn how to play it. By wiggling fingers. And standing as still as a statue. Without breathing. Or thinking about anything but how the heck you're going to get to that next note. That's where the hard work comes in.
As much as I like my little Theremin, I can't recommend it unless you've got about $400 you don't know what to do with and you're slightly musically insane. I'm glad there are enough folks out there who fit that description to allow Moog to keep this product alive.
If you plunk, you can take comfort in knowing that you'll be the life of the party every time Halloween rolls around. Start working on your Gort costume now!
* Actually, "Good Vibrations" uses an "Electro-Theremin." The Electro-Theremin was invented by studio trombonist (of course!) Paul Tanner. It was a very hands-on device that used a mechanical slider to determine pitch and a run-of-the-mill ol' knob to control volume. I'm sure it was still rather difficult to play well, but being able to hold onto knobs and sliders is regarded as cheating by Theremin purists.