Musician laments typecasting of “oddball instrument”
BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
Perhaps it was inevitable. The theremin—an electronic instrument invented by a Soviet physicist who also developed espionage bugs, and which is played without touching anything—has become closely associated with “the eerie.”
“People hear the theremin and right away they think, ‘Ooh. Creepy,’” said Jim Casson, the professional drummer who owns what could be Pelham’s only theremin.
One day in February, Casson assembled the instrument in his basement recording studio and monkeyed around with it, as he does from time to time.
The theremin does not look like a musical instrument. Casson’s is a small black rectangle, about 18 inches long and four fingers wide. It has two antennas—one extending vertically, like the antenna on a car, and the other looping horizontally from one end of the box. There are two dials on the front, and two cords coming out the back.
The theremin was invented in 1920 by Leon Theremin, a Soviet physicist, who also became famous for inventing “The Thing,” a listening device that bugged the American embassy. Theremin developed the instrument while working on creating an electronic device for measuring the density of gasses.
His invention was such a sensation at the time that Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin commissioned Theremin to tour the country to demonstrate the device and to promote electrification.
Theremin moved to the United States in the 1920s and signed a $100,000 contract with RCA in 1929, but the instrument’s launch was a flop, resulting from a combination of high cost, difficulty of use, and the stock market crash.
“You took it home and found that your best efforts led to squealing and moaning sounds,” Theremin’s biographer Albert Glinsky told the BBC. “So the combination of the fact that only the most skilled people could teach themselves how to play it and the fact that there was a downturn in the economy meant that the instrument really wasn’t a commercial success.”
Casson first encountered the theremin at a museum in Calgary.
“I was out touring with a band—our flights got moved around and we were stranded there,” he said. “So we ended up visiting a private musical instrument museum, and there was a theremin.” Years later, after a few of his friends had bought their own, he decided to pick one up.
“I thought that they’d be really expensive. I saw it in a museum, so it must be expensive,” he remembered.
Casson was used to spending nearly a thousand dollars on a single drum, but when he looked online, theremins were surprisingly cheap.
“I bought mine from a company in Georgia. It was the second most expensive model, and it was only $150,” he said. “The most expensive one would have sounded the same, too—it just came in a beautiful wooden box. It looks like a piece of furniture.”
The components themselves can be bought at an electronics store for $20.
Casson switched on the box and hit a button on a speaker nearby. He held his left hand flat above the horizontal antenna, as if he were preparing to stimulate a crystal ball, and positioned his right hand close to vertical antenna, pinching his thumb in towards his fingers.
“The horizontal antenna controls the volume,” said Casson, raising his arm up and down, the noise growing louder and softer in direct relation to his hand’s distance from the coil.
With most musical instruments, sound is only emitted when the player does something: the pressing of a piano key, the blowing through a reed, the strike of a drum. But the theremin is different.
“It doesn’t stop making noise until you put your hand right up against the antenna,” he explained. “That’s why they say that you have to ‘play the rests’ as well as the notes.”
Casson moved his right hand around next to the vertical antenna, altering the pitch from a low hum to a high whine.
“It’s very hard to control the pitch accurately. It’s not like hitting piano keys, where the semi-tones [distance between notes] are fixed,” said Casson. “The pitch changes exponentially.”
He moved his hand far away from the antenna.
“Your first move between notes is three inches,” he said. “And then when you get close to the antenna with the high notes, they are just micro-adjustments.” He moved his hand very close to the antenna and shifted each finger by an almost imperceptible amount.
One of the dials on the theremin changes these distances between notes; the instrument can be set to the upper threshold, making it easier to play high notes, or it can be set to the lower, making it easier to reach the deep. But this dial can’t really be fiddled with during a single song.
“You change that, and you’re in a different key,” said Casson. “It’s like putting a capo on a guitar.”
Because of the minuscule movements required to switch notes, Casson said that any excess movement can throw the playing off.
“You can’t rock out to the theremin—you have to be completely still,” he said. “You end up looking incredibly boring because you’re just standing there like a statue.”
Casson has used his theremin in his Dark Orchard project, which is mainly experimental music, and has occasionally performed with it live, calling it a “neat novel visual.” Otherwise, his theremin mostly keeps the rest of his instrument collection company in his Fenwick basement.
“I was recording some music for Dave Rave [known from Teenage Head, an ‘80s Hamilton punk band] and he saw the theremin here. He said, ‘Is that a theremin? We’ve got to have that in a song,” recalled Casson.
The instrument became famous when Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page began playing a modified version of it, though it still remains, as Casson calls it, an “oddball instrument.”
Years later, it was discovered that Theremin’s purpose for moving to the United States was more strategic than musical.
“His very reason for being sent over was his espionage mission,” Theremin’s biographer Albert Glinsky told the BBC. Theremin “ran his own companies, which were fronts for industrial espionage, and he reported to Amtorg, the Soviet trading corporation in America, itself a front for espionage activities.”
When Theremin returned to the Soviet Union, he was sent to the Gulag in Siberia for a time, and only after the fall of communism did he learn of his instrument’s cult-like status in the west.
“There are some original compositions for the theremin,” said Casson, though he concluded that at this point it is unlikely that the theremin will ever be anything other than a novelty.
There are still some exceptions.
Clara Rockmore, a Soviet expatriate who once declined an offer of marriage from Leon Theremin, is widely considered the greatest thereminist of all. YouTube is full of archival footage of her playing the instrument, often accompanied by the piano. On what would have been her 105th birthday, in 2016, Google’s homepage was a doodle dedicated to her. By hovering the cursor on the screen, users could control a virtual theremin, operating an electronic instrument through the use of an electronic device. Leon Theremin would have been pleased.
Clara Rockmore, in performance with the theremin: Watch now