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This nOde last updated June 10th, 2004 and is permanently morphing...
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theremin (thèr´e-mîn) noun
An electronic instrument played by moving the hands near its two antennas, often used for high tremolo effects.
[After Leo Theremin (born 1896), Russian engineer and inventor.]
An example of the way that the electromagnetic imagination exists in our culture today is electronic music. That is, of course, a huge field and I am not trying to generalize about it at all. But if you look at the topic historically, particularly once electronic music or the electrical aspects of music enter into popular culture, we find an association between electricity and mysticism, outer space, cosmic vibrations. A lot of very bad music is produced out of these ideas and a lot of very good electronic music has nothing to do with them. I am not trying to say that they are necessary connections, but they are connections which come up over and over again.Stockhausen's ideas about how the universe works are actually quite interesting because they come out of the things that I have already been talking about, a way of fusing the more mystical ideas about vibration and the cosmos with aspects of electromagnetism. You find the same thing with the role of feedback in Sixties rock music. The paragon example of this is in The Beach Boys' song, _Good Vibrations_, which captures this very hippie metaphor---vibrations and that whole cultural idea---and yet if you analyze the song, the instrument which is producing the "good vibrations" is the theremin. The theremin is the first genuinely electronic instrument and, if you have ever seen anybody play a theremin, it is a very odd instrument because you are not actually touching anything physical. The theremin basically has two rods---I am not very good at the science of it or else I would have coughed it up--- and you sit there and it produces two fields that you play by moving your hand. So you wave your hands like a magician and you can pull the sounds out of the ether. Of course, the ether doesn't really exist, but it is certainly a very enchanted instrument. We go on through the Seventies and the progressive rock and a lot of cheesy things like that and we notice that, when electronic music comes back into popular culture in strong way in the late-Eighties and the early-Nineties, it is still accompanied by a return of ideas of the ecstasy, of the experience plugged into a drug universe, of imagery of cosmic beings and aliens and entities. All sorts of elements of the imaginal are connected in with the question of electronics.
- Erik Davis - _Spiritual Telegraphs and the Technology of Communication_ lecture
It's also important to remember historically that one of the great pioneers of media, Leon Theremin, was probably the first person to create the first genuine working television, and created the first electronic musical instrument, also created the first virtual-reality-like device, using capacitors to make music out of music out of dancers' motions around 1912. There's a history to this that I'm proud to be a part of.
- Jaron Lanier in Zavtone interview
...An example: the first truly electronic instrument is a gadget invented by the Russian Leon Theremin, which was appropriately called the theremin. Theremin created his instrument in the early twenties; basically, it created an electromagnetic field that you could modulate with your hand. You controlled pitch and volume by inserting your body into this field; seemingly, you plucked the music from thin air. Theremin thought of his creation as a concert hall instrument, and Clara Rockmore, the greatest thereminist of all time, used it for performances of Rachmaninoff and Ravel. But what do we see and feel when we hear the theremin's eerie etheric tones, its weird and wavering voice? We know the instrument through the soundtracks of fifties UFO movies and pop songs like the appropriately named "Good Vibrations." So though the instrument was constructed as an instrument to play "real" music, it drifted through twentieth-century pop culture, picking up any number of strange associations—cosmic vibrations, outer space, paranoia, drugs. Electronic space opens up a variety of curious modes of subjectivity—and not just science-fiction clichés. Think of what happened to electronic music in the sixties and seventies, in both psychedelic music and art music like Stockhausen. We find an emphasis on the cosmic, on spatial disorientation, on transport, on affect, on the nonhuman. The acoustic spaces of electronic music aren't limited to the organization of affect and narrative that define much popular music, with its highly personalized structures of love and loss.
- Erik Davis - Acoustic Cyberspace Lecture
Directed by Steven M. Martin
Steven M. Martin
Plot Outline: A documentary about the inventor of the first electronic synthesiser instrument and his subsequent life after he was abducted by the KGB as well as a history of his instrument.
Cast (in alphabetical order)
Robert Moog .... Himself
Clara Rockmore .... Herself
Todd Rundgren .... Himself
Nicolas Slonimsky .... Himself
Leon Theremin .... Himself
Brian Wilson .... Himself
Steven M. Martin
Original music by
Film Editing by
MPAA: Rated PG for brief strong language.
Color: Black and White / Color
Certification: USA:PG / Australia:PG
A popular form of theremin is the light-sensitive variety. As the name implies, this type of instrument reacts to changes in light levels (i.e. brightness) just as the spatial proximity-based theremin reacts to changes in capacitance. Professor Scott F. Hall of Cogswell Polytechnical College, Sunnyvale, California, has used this idea in the creation of his Optivideotone, an assemblage of audio and video electronics combined to produce an object that is sculpture, musical instrument / composition tool, and projected video art exhibit in one.