An Account of a Theremin Demonstration (1927) - from the Archives

An Account of a Theremin Demonstration

Dr. Rudolph Frank 1927

In 1927 Leon Theremin gave a number of public demonstrations of his new invention in concert halls across Europe, where his Russian name had become Leon Theremin, and his instrument was popularly named «les ondes etherees». On August 4 of that year, at an exhibition called Music In The Life Of The People in Frankfurt, Germany, a certain Doctor Rudolph Frank witnessed one of these conferences. Dr. Frank states incorrectly that this was the first time a demonstration of the instrument had ever been presented to the general public. In any case, Dr. Frank was greatly impressed and wrote down his experience.

"From a small mahogany box which serves likewise as a music stand, there rises vertically a metal rod about 40 centimeters long, while to the left, there extends another rod bent into the form of a ring. On the floor is a dry cell battery and in the background is a loudspeaker. Box, battery and loudspeaker are connected by wires.

A young man, the typical engineer, takes his place in front of this unpretentious desk. It is Leon Theremin, presenting for the first time before an audience his new invention - an instrument that produces music solely by the free movement of the hands in space. Slowly he lifts his right hand, holding it at a distance of about one meter from the upright metal rod. The movement produces a sound, the tone of which rises gradually until it produces a pitch that no instrument, and far less the human voice, is capable of attaining.

Now he raises his left hand gently above the ring-shaped rod, until it is about the height of his head. As he does so, the note sounded grows louder and louder. Then he lets his hand fall, as if to soothe the sound, and it grows softer until it dies out in the tenderest pianissimo.

It is evident that we have here the essential conditions for the production of music - a variation of pitch on the one hand, and in intensity on the other. The sounds, however, are more or less mechanical and without the quality of soul. The inventor himself points out that they lack the sympathetic quality which we call "heart". In short they do not vibrate like the music invoked by the human throat and breath, or by the human hand from instruments of wood or metal.

Incredulous, we gaze upon the young engineer. His looks grow tender. The inventor becomes the musician. The fingers of his right hand vibrate like those of a violinist when he presses the strings. They vibrate in the free air, and a marvelously sweet tone sweeps through the room. Invisibly a soul sings, and we listen thrilled.

At one moment it sounds deep as a organ note, then at another like a perfect viola, or a violin from the hand of one of the old master craftsmen. Suddenly it resembles a flute, and then a huntsman's horn. Whole notes, halves, quarters, yes, even eighth notes are thus drawn from the electric field around the antennas merely by the motions of the bare hands. There is no discord perceptible, even when this marvelous and miraculous music is accompanied by a performer upon the grand piano. The works of such great composers as Greig, Saint-Saens, and Scriabin are played. It is wonderful indeed how remote the tones of the piano sound in comparison with the vital fullness and resonant force of those which flow from the mysterious electrical currents under the hands of Thérémin.

As if these marvels were not enough, Theremin begins to repeat the piece. But what is this? The tones no longer come from the same place as before. We turn out heads: the sounds come to us like an echo - from behind us, from the highest, farthest corners of the room!

We learn that there are alternating currents of varying frequencies which are conducted from the human body over the apparatus, though they are entirely independent of the body. The approach of the hands effects the frequency of the alternating currents which surround the antennas. The nearer the finger comes to the vertical rod, the higher the note produced. The further the hand from the ring-shaped antenna, the louder the sound. By these means are obtained every possibility of musical expression. The tone follows, in the minutest particular, the vibration of the fingers, the rhythm of the blood.

If one were to increase the strength of the current, even to two kilowatts only, a truly disturbing effect would be produced by the transformed current. The amazing echo, which I have already mentioned, was formed merely by the reversal of the current.

I firmly believe that in later times, when the present invention is perfected and elaborated, we shall refer to the performance purely and simply as "music". Then it will be recalled that it was first presented to the world on August 4, 1927 at the City of Frankfurt's celebrated exhibition Music In The Life Of The People."

Tagged: Leon Theremin

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