Boring, Boring Rock Arsenal: The Theremin



The theremin was invented in 1920, which is why it slyly is shown as background furniture on the cover of all of your Decopunk graphic novels.

[NOTE: I’ve made every attempt to be factual and accurate, if irreverently so, in all of my “insightful humor” posts.  Be warned, though, that the propaganda machines behind both the Iron Curtain and the American Flag makes it pert near impossible in the case of Leon Theremin.  I was unable to edit out all of the ‘Murican sentiment because it is the most compelling story, not because the USSR were liars, liars, and fiery-pants wearers]


The theramin was invented by Leon Theremin[whose real name was Lev Serveegich Termen; Leon Theremin was his Westernized name, but history identifies him with it instead.  See what I mean?], a wizard of electronics for the Soviet Union.  Much like Celtic Frost, Theremin toured Europe before coming to the United States in 1928, patenting his instrument and starting mass production with a contract from RCA.  Shortly after that?  The Great Depression.  Theremin “left” the United States a decade later, with a little nudge from his mounting debt and a teeny nudge from a Soviet press gang.  The theramin lost favor as a musical instrument, so Leon continued to make awesome spy equipment(in a Gulag prison) and work for the KGB, later working for a music conservatory and a physics department for the USSR.  Theremin would eventually return to the United States, but not until the 1991, the year punk broke and rudely excluded the theremin from its ranks.

What and How?


The theramin, in its original form factor, looks like a toy piano possessed by an electronic ghost, with a vertical antenna and a horizontal metal loop connected to a wooden cabinet eaten alive by the design ascetic of The Rocketeer.  The metal loop controls the volume of the note, while the vertical aerial controls the pitch of the note.  Both operate by proximity; the closer your hand gets to the loop, the quieter the note gets, and the closer to the aerial your other hand gets, the higher the pitch of the note.  The motion of coordinating your pitch hand, which is both moving towards and away from the pitch aerial and trembling at a government-approved seven tremors per second to facilitate vibrato, with your volume hand, dropping one, two, or three fingers in like an at-first-timid-but-then-awestruck Grace Slick poolboy, is difficult to master[unless you are Lenin, who, according to legend purported by the man himself,  was able to play “Skylark” immediately after watching Theremin perform it].

The trick to playing a theremin correctly is understanding the vocal concept of portamento.  Portamento is a technique where a vocalist uses a glissando effect, sliding the pitch of his/her voice from one to another.  It’s more subtle than the trombone’s glissando, the clowns of the orchestra that they are*.  Even in its subtly, however, it is widely discouraged among classical musicians.  In fact, if you ever wonder if a classically trained vocalist lady you’re dating is also trained in Taekwondo, tell her as you’re strolling on the moonlit beach about how much you love the way those American Idol singers hunt and peck and warble for the notes because it sounds “soulful” and “like they’re really feeling it”.  Is she stating to slide her dress over her knees?  No, your music talk hasn’t put her in a sexy mood; she is giving herself the full range of motion needed to dislocate your jaw with the hardened heel of her weaponized foot.


Using portamento correctly on the theremin gives the instrument the vocal, lyrical quality that makes what is essentially feedback aurally palatable.  Clara Rockmore, who helped establish the signature sound and technique of the theremin, said that the performer must “play through the rests”, and proper playing of the theremin means that during phrases you can’t stop the sound completely by sticking your whole fist through the volume loop, the main reason Rob Halford refuses to use the instrument on any Fight albums.


Because HAUNTED BY ROBOTS, that’s why!  Here’s three of my favorite rock theremin parishioners:

1) Brian Wilson

Sure, only once, but once is enough when it’s on “Good Vibrations”.  Coupled with the chamber echo on the bass and the organ sound, the theremin was the perfect lyrical voice to hover over the cello strokes and walking bass parts.  Apparently Carl’s idea, but I’m sure somehow Dr. Landy tried to take credit…

2. NOT Portishead

I sure do love me some Portishead, but according to the band they never use a theremin to make their eerie, Fifties-era electronica noises.  Part of the reason the theremin went out of vogue was the creation of synths like the Moog, with a more familiar method of performance(keyboard) making it easier to get the sound the performer needed.  Playing a synthesizer doesn’t look as cool as playing a theremin, but still sounds awesome.

3. Mike Patton

On the off chance that Mike Patton isn’t using his voice as a theremin substitute, he often surrounds himself with the sound of one.  Often the theremin takes over the melodic line in his songs or is doubling the vocals, but every once in a while Patton kicks out the jams with his own “cheater” theremin in his kit of effects, with just one aerial to control pitch.

So celebrate Independence Day this week by listening to the theremin, which I guess was invented by a Communist but Clara Rockmore had to learn to play one because the malnutrition she suffered behind the Iron Curtain left her too weak to master the violin USA USA USA USA.

*Saying the trombone is “the clown of the orchestra” is tiring, I know, but a fantastic trombone player I know once called someone who was running past his allotted time in the rehearsal hall a “ham sandwich”.  This happened roughly eighteen years ago, and I’m still laughing thinking about it.  Clowns, indeed.



Hawkwind: Silver Machine

Kaada/Patton: Invocation


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