The Theremin's Making a Comeback

Slate's Culture Blog
July 27 2009 2:29 PM

The Theremin's Making a Comeback

Long relegated to the world of sci-fi movie soundtracks, the world's first electronic instrument, the Theremin, is making a comeback, appearing on tracks by artists like Sufjan Stevens, the Decemberists, Wolf Parade, Devotchka, The Polyphonic Spree, and the All-American Rejects. What is it about Leon Theremin's almost-century-old instrument that is suddenly so appealing?

/blogs/browbeat/2009/07/27/the_theremin_s_making_a_comeback/jcr:content/body/slate_image

Theremin invented the instrument in 1919. He was working on a device to measure the density of gases under pressure and realized that by passing his hands over it, he could create fluctuations that sounded like musical tones. Played by waving your hands in front of what looks like a black box with one vertical and one horizontal antenna, the Theremin produces a warbling, eerie sound created by the difference in frequency between the two antennas. The story goes that Lenin, after hearing the instrument, was so impressed that he ordered 600 of them made and sent Theremin on a tour of the globe to demonstrate Soviet superiority in the field of electronic music. Unfortunately for Lenin, Theremin quickly defected to the United States and patented the instrument. Theremin was eventually forced to return to the USSR under mysterious circumstances , and the instrument was largely forgotten as other electronic instruments—the electric guitar among them—became more popular.

Advertisement

The Theremin briefly reappeared on the pop culture radar in the late '60s when Robert Moog (pioneer of that other electronic classic, the synthesizer) built a better sounding, easier to play instrument. Beach Boy Brian Wilson included it in the song "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" and Led Zeppelin jammed to it in "Whole Lotta Love." But the sound never really caught on, and the Theremin again receded into the background, until now. (Elsewhere in Brow Beat, Dana Stevens discusses the Theremin's various uses in the movies .)

The reasons for the current resurgence of the Theremin are a bit hard to figure. John Hoge of ThereminWorld.com says the 1995 documentary Theremin: An Electric Odyssey , helped to spark interest in the instrument as something other than a spooky sound generator. Others, like The Octopus Project's Yvonne Lambert, say that better-quality Theremins by Robert Moog have helped make it easier to learn and incorporate the instrument into more mainstream songs. Another factor could be a larger reliance by musicians on electronics of all sorts, from the blips and beeps on a Garage Band mixer to auto-tune. Lastly, the Theremin's stage-show value ("Look Ma, no hands!") as well as its otherworldly sound fit with the geek-chic aesthetic currently popular among independent bands.

To get you caught up to speed, here's a Theremin greatest hits playlist—add songs we forgot in the Fray:

Beach Boys, " I Just Wasn't Made for These Times "
Led Zeppelin, " Whole Lotta Love "
The Octopus Project, " Rorol "
Devotchka, " C'est Ce La "
Wolf Parade, " No One Saves the Day "
Sufjan Stevens, " In the Devil's Territory "
Franz Ferdinand, " Dream Again "
All-American Rejects, " Stab My Back "
Theremin versions of " Crazy " and " Video Killed the Radio Star ."

Photograph of Theremin player Toby Halbrooks of The Polyphonic Spree courtesy Jim Dyson/Getty Images.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 12:29 PM A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

Subprime Loans Are Back

And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Outward
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 9:17 PM Trent Reznor’s Gone Girl Soundtrack Sounds Like an Eerie, Innovative Success
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.