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The Major Sound of the Extraterrestrial: Meet Theremin

06 Aug 2020

Close your eyes for a second to remember Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Spellbound – what is the first thing that you hear thinking about the film? That eerie theme written by ‎the Hungarian-American composer Miklós Rózsa to depict the arrival of the aliens is created with the help of one of the weirdest yet most interesting instruments called theremin. Crowned the father of eccentric rare music instruments, it is the main focus of today’s article.

Hitchcock was not the first and the only one to use theremin in his work. Due to the specific sounding, it was widely featured in other films, like The Day the Earth Stood Still (Bernard Herrmann), First Man (Justin Hurwitz), Odna (Dmitri Shostakovich), The Delicate Delinquent (Jerry Lewis), Midsomer Murders (Jim Parker), Mars Attacks (Danny Elfman).

As you can notice, the theme of most these TV works is kinda intercrossing and the use of theremin revolves around similar topics and moods. But why did composers pick exactly this instrument? The answer may hide in the very mechanics of theremin’s sound. Rich and universal in nature, it was created as a no-contact electronic music instrument that produces a great variety of sounds with the help of two antennae. The horizontal loop antenna is responsible for the volume, while the upright one – for the pitch. The Russian physicist Leon Theremin, who patented it in 1928 in the US, was initially part of the Soviet research dedicated to proximity sensors. 

Although the invention did not immediately become a commercial success, it seemed to fascinate the audiences for its originality and suitability for various repertoires, from classical to rock. Thus, the first biggest fans to compose specifically for theremin were Henry Cowell (USA) and Edgard Varèse (France-USA). Below you can listen to Varèse’s “Ecuatorial” that was among the first pieces to mix traditional ensemble instruments and their new unusual colleague: 

It’s not only alien-themed works that sound great on theremin. For example, Gershwin wrote a beautiful Romantic suite (“First Airphonic Suite”) as a dedication to Leon Theremin, elegantly featuring theremin as if it were a leading violin or a cello. This is why you can actually perform most classical pieces on this instrument without fearing that it won’t fit in naturally enough. To begin with, try some suites by Percy Grainger (“Free Music Suites”).

Taking into consideration that theremin is basically the daddy of electronic music, it is no wonder that popular music found a spot for it too. You can hear the theremin or its analogues in “Good Vibrations by The Beach Boys, “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin, “Between the Buttons” album by The Rolling Stones. 

Going back to the most popularized sphere of theremin’s use, it’s important to mention the real Extraterrestrial Concert, a broadcast that took place in 2001 in Crimea. The so-called concert was transmitted during three days as part of an interstellar radio message. The theremin recordings of seven melodies were played, among them Beethoven’s “9th Symphony”, Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise”, Vivaldi’s “Spring” from The Four Seasons. The scores to all of the above mentioned compositions can be found in our catalogue in addition to the separate theremin sheet music section.

We hope you’ve learnt something new about this unique instrument and, who knows, maybe had a desire to play a suite or two for the aliens.

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