[✍] Theremin, ’20s: time of dreamers [1]

[✍] Theremin, ’20s: time of dreamers [1]

While I am waiting for Moog Etherwave to arrive from the US, and I have time to relax after a recent concert at the Crocus Expo, I want to write a little bit about the history of the theremin. I came across a promotional brochure by RCA Victor — this American company manufactured theremins in the 1920s.

An absolutely new unique musical instrument anyone can play.

This is what the title page says.

The RCA advertisement seems to be too optimistic. Or those people were rather dreamers. And I do not know whether Leon Theremin really thought that anyone could play his instrument. But as for him, he was definitely a dreamer — in a good way.

In fact, the booklet states that a housewife can play this instrument — for example, to entertain guests by pleasant music… Radio and especially television had not yet made their way into every house at the time, but the theremin, as RCA believed, could do it and replace the phonograph as a means of entertainment and piano for domestic music-making.

In fact, the first theremins (actually all models manufactured up to 1960s) were of little use for an unprepared learner. The method of playing is contactless, which makes tuning to notes by ear a difficult task. And you have to be guided only by ear, as theremin notes are to be found in the air.

In addition, the tuning of the theremin itself was prone to constant shifting. After all, those models were based on tubes: as the tube warmed up, the tuning changed. For this reason, a theremin player had to switch on the instrument at least half an hour before the concert, so it could warm up and detune in a more predictable way (if you can call this “predictable” at all). But it is only part of the story. The voltage drop could cause detuning, too. Someone walked by the instrument and this again could shift the tuning.

More than this, the air “neck” of the theremin was not uniform: each octave had a different length. So you can imagine trying to play it when the power supply voltage drops, the tube warms up, and someone walks by.

So housewives, despite RCA’s predictions, never mastered the theremin. But the instrument always attracted people’s attention.

It is clear that the statement that anyone can learn to play this thing, was just a clever PR move. Although, maybe the time was that optimistic? There is something common with the utopian ideas of Ivan Efremov… In his “Andromeda”, he described a solar piano with a triple keyboard manual (as well as some analogue of contemporary music on demand service), and at some point Dar Veter (the main protagonist, not to be confused with Darth Vader), wishing to listen to the solar piano adaptation of the piece titled “13th Blue Cosmic Symphony in F Minor”, asks an electrosmelting operator (sic!) — she was the “shy and silent woman” — to play it for him.

Yeah, maybe it was just such a time…

Update 2009: The topic was continued in my article, “Theremin: Past, Present and Future”, published in the “Radio» magazine (№ 1, 2009).

This post is also available in: Russian

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