The Double Revolution of the Theremin (1998) - from the Archives

The Double Revolution of the Theremin (Page 1 of 3)

Musical Instrument Interface Innovation in the Ages of Analog and Digital Electricity
Patrick Rashleigh 1998

In the October 2, 1927 issue of The New York Times, tucked away in column 6 of the second section, there was an announcement of a new musical curiosity that had been publicly unveiled in Berlin the day before. The article was headlined "ETHER WAVE MUSIC AMAZES SAVANTS" and went on to describe the new invention of a young Russian professor, Leon Theremin of the Physicotechnical Institute of Leningrad. His device, described as a "box three and a half feet wide, two feet deep and three feet high [with a] short brass rod projected up from the top at the right side and a brass ring about 8 inches in diameter from the left side", was a bizarre new musical instrument that sounded like "a violin of extraordinary beauty and fullness of tone." However, the sound was not the most startling feature of this invention, but the fact that the instrument was played without physical contact. "Assuming a slightly affected posture, ... [Prof. Theremin] merely gestured in space. Out of the loud-speaker of the familiar radio type came the familiar strains of the Scriabine Etude". The music of the new instrument was instantly dubbed "ether music" as notes seemed to be drawn magically from the air. (New York Times, Oct. 2, 1927)

Interviewed after the concert, Theremin predicted far-reaching consequences of his machine. "My apparatus frees the composer from the despotism of the twelve-note tempered piano scale", he claimed. "The composer can now construct a scale of the intervals desired. He can have intervals of thirteenths, if he wants them." The machine also apparently had near-infinite tonal possibilities, mimicking string, wind, and brass instruments with "absolute fidelity", and giving the composer a new palette of "literally thousands of tone colours." But apart from the new resources the instrument offered the composer and listener, it also offered a more intuitive, natural means of producing music. The ether music was "created with a simplicity and a directness matched only by singing. There is no keyboard to obtrude itself, no catgut, no bow, no pedal, nothing but simple expressive gestures of the hands." This instrument, Theremin claimed, would "[open] up an entirely new field in composition." (New York Times, Oct. 2, 1927)

Paradoxically, history would both surpass and fall far short of Theremin’s optimistic claims. His enthusiasm was a product of his age, a world swept up in significant new advances in electrical technology. For many today, his instrument - called originally the Thereminvox, but eventually shortened to simply The Theremin - signaled the birth of electronic music, and the starting point of 60 years of musical exploration not comparable to anything that had come before. In that sense, Theremin’s claims about the future impact of his instrument were accurate. What he did not foresee was the quick fall of his instrument into near obscurity right up until the 1970s, when it was effectively "rediscovered" by a new generation of electronic instrument designers, led by Robert Moog. Now, in the 1990s, Theremin’s dream is very much alive, but transformed in many significant ways. Just as Theremin’s generation was gripped by the new "cult of electricity" that foresaw the transformation of every aspect of society through electrical analog technology, since the 1980s we have been engaged in a similar giddiness over the digital revolution- and the computer has now become the new technological means to a better society. For now, the Theremin and its ideals are enjoying a rebirth in the digital age and inspiring a new generation of musical interface innovations not seen since the first rush of new designs in the 1920s and 30s. Nevertheless, the Theremin’s role today is very different from the one it played in the 1920s. In the course of this paper, I will examine how the Theremin first established a new direction in musical instrument interface design, as well as its resurgence in the 1980s and 90s as inspiration for the second revolution in electronic interface innovation. I will begin my discussion with a short historical overview of interface development.

A Brief History of the Instrument Interface

In surveying the history of musical instrument interface designs, it is remarkable how little has changed in the last 2500 years. With very few exceptions, almost all the major interfaces that we use today were fully established by the Middle Ages and have changed little if at all since then. Carlos Chavez broke the "sound-agents" of pre-electronic instruments into three categories: 1) strings (plucked and bowed), 2) columns of air (woodwinds, brasses), and 3) plates and membranes (percussion). The "procedures for obtaining vibrations from them" were generally either 1) rubbing (as in bowed instruments), 2) blowing, 3) striking, or 4) plucking (Chavez, 1937:138). These "procedures" are, of course, the prime determining factor for the interface design- and Chavez pointed out that they have essentially not changed in thousands of years. "Going as far back in history as possible, we find peoples living five thousand years B.C. using the same sound-agents we use today, and vibrating them by the same means." (Chavez, 1937:139) The instruments of the orchestra are substantially the same -albeit refined - as the ones used in ancient times, the exception being the bowed instruments whose history is less clear. In terms of instrument interface, two more exceptions come to mind: the keyboard and the valve, both of which are rare examples of unique acoustic interfaces that have arisen within recorded history. I think it worthwhile to briefly look at the development of these two interfaces, if only to put the advances of the turn of the 20th century into a greater historical perspective.

Today’s most popular interface, the keyboard, first originated in classical Greek times as a series of sliders that controlled air passing from pistons and hydraulic compressors to a series of pipes. The hydraulis (‘water organ’) evolved into the Winchester monastery organ of AD 980, an instrument powered by bellows but still controlled by sliders, called linguae, that were pulled rather than pushed. By the thirteenth century, pulled sliders became pushed levers, and by the fourteenth century, paintings show black and white organ keys in the modern chromatic arrangement (Sachs, p.284-6). While sound production using the keyboard interface has undergone many startling and dramatic developments since, the interface itself was already established by the 1300s.

The valve is one of the few examples that I have found of a new interface design that seemed to occur with almost the same spontaneity as the early electronic instruments. However, while the valve did appear on the scene quite suddenly, it was the result of a prolonged period of experimentation in the attempt to produce a chromatic horn. Of course, non-valved horns have existed for millennia, but have suffered from a significant limitation: a fixed-length, ‘natural’ horn is only capable of producing a fundamental pitch and its overtones. On its own, the accessible portion of the harmonic series does not even form a diatonic major scale, let alone the full chromatic range. In order to access notes outside of the overtone series, various options were tried, including fingerholes, keys, and a technique called stopping, which alters notes by inserting fingers into the bell. Different ways of varying the horn’s length were also tried, including the use of ‘crooks’, or removable (and replaceable) sections of the horn. To access different notes, the existing crook was removed and replaced with another of different length, which produced a different set of overtones. This idea was taken to its extreme in the 19th century, with the omnitonic horn, which had "crooks for all transpositions solidly fixed to the instrument in a circular arrangement and connected at will by a small dial." (Sachs, 1940:426) Of course, with all its accompanying crooks, this horn was too heavy to support, and the dial interface was too clumsy and slow to be practical (Sachs, 1940:417-426).

All this experimentation, which had started in the 15th century, culminated in the 1815 invention of the valve by two German musicians- Bluhmel and Stolzel. Crooks were selected by spring-loaded valves that allowed the player to access new overtone series with ease and speed (Sachs, 1940:426). With this discovery, the truly chromatic trumpet and horn was born, as was an entirely new instrument interface.

These examples serve to highlight two main points: that interface design had traditionally been a slow evolution, where each innovation ‘built’ upon the advances of the last. If real change occurred at all, (Chavez claimed that musical instruments had not changed substantially in seven thousand years) it was continuous and gradual. Another point, which will be explored more extensively later, is that interface design was always subject to the demands of the physical sound-producing phenomenon. The lengthy search for the valve was an attempt to find a practical way to deal with the pitch restrictions of the horn’s vibrating column of air. While the control interface had to be ergonomically viable, ergonomics was a consideration that entered only after the issues of sound production control had been resolved. The interface’s design could never be based purely on suitability to the human body in isolation of external factors. In the words of the Baroque; ‘the interface was the mistress of the sound producer.’

With such incremental change in interface design over the course of so many millennia, the extent of the advances made in the early part of this century were gigantic and unparalleled. Technology as a whole was making giant leaps forward, as the potential of electricity was gradually realized in such revolutionary inventions as the light bulb and radio. Contemporary accounts reveal the simultaneous excitement and fear of the impacts electrical technology could have on the future. "The most important evolutionary step in the entire span of history is without a doubt the conquest of electricity", wrote the composer Joseph Schillinger in an article entitled: "Electricity, a Musical Liberator" (Schillinger, 1931:26). Schillinger asserted that composers are limited in their creativity by the technology of their time, and that as musical applications of electricity arose, composers would scramble to fill the void. Electricity would also open the possibility of the scientific, rather than subjective, analysis of musical phenomena. "[J]ust as Edison’s lamp, literally speaking, shed a flood of light, so the possibility of obtaining sound from electrical current has illuminated the dark realm of musical phenomena and given us possibilities of observing and studying sound phenomena" (Schillinger, 1931:27). As for music production, Schillinger described a "more extensive study" undertaken by Leon Theremin, which resulted in instruments with 3 "essential characteristics": 1) electrical means of producing acoustical oscillations, 2) methods of singling out harmonics electrically to obtain various timbres, and 3) developing "different ways of playing by means of changing the electrical constants ... and using keyboard, fingerboard or space controlled adjustments." (Schillinger, 1931:30) Like Theremin, Schillinger foresaw the new musical resources as opening new possibilities for musical expression, both for the composer and the performer.

Others, however, saw technological advances in music in a different light. Boris de Schloezer saw technology as distancing the performer from the musical product. "All those splendid mechanisms, like Theremin’s or Martenot’s apparatus, ...are in a sense negligible, since they are not animated by the thought and will of man ... The development we have seen in the last twenty-five years ... consists in gradually replacing the direct relation between performer and auditor ... by an indirect and somewhat remote relation." (de Schloezer, 1931:3) Although he foresaw the eventual widespread impact of electrical technology on music, de Schloezer also dismissed its ability to contribute to music as an art: "Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as mechanical music ... [M]usic is, and always will be, essentially spiritual ... The ‘mechanization of music’ actually means the increase in the number of intermediaries between producer of music and listener." (de Schloezer, 1931:3)

This view was the exact opposite of Theremin’s, who saw electrical apparatus tapping more directly into the performer’s thoughts and intentions. Clearly, Theremin and de Schloezer were operating under different assumptions. De Schloezer held the view that music and its "humanity" lay in the direct, physical relationship between the player and the sound-producing device. The closer and more immediate the relationship, the better the instrument to express humanity. "Perfection for a musical device means ‘being human’", he claimed. The ideal instrument was, therefore, the human voice- an instrument inherently expressive of the human condition. He did, however, name a second best: "[B]owed instruments are incontestably the finest ... because they are in intimate contact with the human body and respond to its slightest impulses." (de Schloezer, 1931:4) Theremin also saw the ideal instrument as one sensitive to the performer’s actions, but didn’t see the technology as an "intermediary" or distancing apparatus, but a means to remove the physical restrictions of the very interfaces de Schloezer saw as in "intimate contact with the human body". Interestingly, both authors saw the voice as the ultimate expressive instrument, but came to completely opposite conclusions about technology’s ability to emulate its expressiveness. As I hope to demonstrate later, I think that six decades of development have shown that both men were essentially correct in their assessment of the potential and pitfalls of electronic interfaces.

The Theremin was the first in a series of new experiments in instrument controls that arose in the 20s and 30s, and in many ways the Theremin was also the most radical and significant. Many of the new interfaces were augmented versions of pre-existent acoustic interfaces, especially the piano keyboard. Chavez saw electrical technology in part as a way to potentially enhance existing interfaces. "In the case of the piano, ... the complexity of the system of hammers has prevented new dispositions of the keyboard, which might otherwise exist." (Chavez, 1937:163) Inventors obliged this suggestion. The Ondes Martenot, the Electrophon, the Dynaphone, the Hammond organ, all were electronic musical instruments controlled by a piano-type keyboard or a modified version. The reason for this is obvious: apart from the fact that the preceding 19th-century was among the most keyboard-obsessed in the history of western music, the keyboard can be seen as nothing more than a musical configuration of a series of switches. In contrast to the keyboard, the ‘data output’ of most acoustic interfaces is hard to translate into an electrical control signal that a sound-producer can interpret. For instance, translating an action into a control signal using a guitar interface involves measuring the frequency of the guitar’s vibrating string and translating it into control data-- a complicated process that was only achieved about 50 years after the Theremin’s appearance. Translation from a keyboard action into a corresponding electrical signal is a simple one-step process, since keys that control a hammer (as in the piano) can just as easily close an electrical contact that results in a control signal to the sound producer. Therefore, the acoustic keyboard had close equivalents in pre-existent electrical controls (consider the similarity of the piano key with the telegraph key of the 19th century!). Moreover, because the keyboard is essentially a set of 88 independent controls, mapping control action and the expected pitches is vastly simplified.

There were experiments on varying the keyboard interface: one of the more successful was the Ondes Martenot, a keyboard with a cable that stretched from side to side across the black keys. To glide from note to note, the player could pull the cable from left to right to determine the pitch. There was also a panel on the left consisting of levers and buttons that allowed the player to control the sound’s amplitude and brightness (Moog, 1993: 46). Pitch-cable notwithstanding, it is interesting to note that in 70 years, the vast majority of synthesizers’ interfaces have changed very little from the Ondes Martenot’s keyboard-with-accompanying-knobs-and-switches.

Theremin also used acoustic instruments as a basis for interface design. In 1930, Theremin produced a variation of his space-controlled instrument based on the ‘cello fretboard, resulting in it being dubbed the "electric ‘cello" (Rhea, 1978:60). In Theremin’s own words, the electric ‘cello had a fingerboard, "but instead of pressing down on strings, it was necessary just to place one’s fingers in different places, thereby creating different pitches." Unlike the acoustic ‘cello interface, however, there were no strings, so amplitude had to be controlled through a lever. In addition, pitch was controlled as if there were only one string- the fingerboard only sensed movement up and down, not side to side (Mattis and Moog, 1991:51). The Theremin itself, although not comparable to any acoustic predecessor, was based on the idea of a conductor’s hand motions. In a 1991 interview with Robert Moog, Theremin said that he originally "conceived of an instrument that would create sound without using any mechanical energy, like the conductor of an orchestra." (Mattis and Moog, 1991:49) As we shall see, the idea of conductor-like motions controlling music directly, rather than via a musician, would be part of the philosophy and ideals of the Theremin legacy.

There were other interfaces in the early years of computer music that attempted to break from the acoustic instrument tradition. Many consisted of levers, knobs, and switches- a natural choice for inventors who were not necessarily musicians themselves. One of the more popular examples was the Trautonium (fig.3), an invention of Friedrick Trautwein. The Trautonium, in its most sophisticated form, consisted of a bank of switches and knobs and a strip that you ran your finger along to control pitch (Moog, 1993:46). Like the Theremin, the Trautonium pitch control was continuous, and therefore did not restrict the player to any single scale. Unlike the Theremin, the Trautonium also was designed to have extensive control over the timbral qualities of its sound.

The Theremin enjoyed a period of popularity and novelty before its difficulties became apparent. First and foremost, one of the Theremin’s biggest drawbacks had also been praised as one of its biggest assets; namely, the lack of a fixed tuning reference. Since the Theremin had no physical guide or contexts in which to play notes, the only feedback to the performer lay in the sound itself. Moreover, surrounding objects apart from the performer would also affect the intonation of the instrument. Tuning was therefore extremely difficult, and producing even a simple major scale was a challenge, let alone a scale that divided the octave into thirteen parts, as had Theremin originally suggested! (Rhea, 1978:60, and Chavez, 1931:163-4)

But two factors were on the side of the Theremin. First, several prominent composers had written pieces that included a Theremin in the orchestration, including Edgar Varese, Joseph Schillinger, and Grainger (Mattis and Moog, 1991:48). Second, the instrument had found a virtuoso, a violinist named Clara Rockmore, who turned the Theremin into a highly expressive concert instrument. Rockmore was both a performer and a performance theorist: she devised a system of hand positions that allowed the player to raise and lower the pitch in discrete, or digital, steps (Rhea, 1987:60). By systematically associating hand and finger positions with pitch, Rockmore partially addressed the intonation and pitch reference problems inherent to the Theremin. Through her, the Theremin achieved a certain legitimacy in the eyes of the music establishment that prolonged its ‘first life’ beyond that of many of its fellow early electronic instruments.

However, both Theremin and his instrument soon fell into obscurity. Theremin himself, who had been living in New York since 1927, was taken back to Russia during the Second World War to help in the war effort. There, in his own words, he was "arrested, and ... taken prisoner. Not quite a prisoner, but they put me in a special lab in the Ministry of Internal Affairs." (Mattis and Moog, 1991:51) To the West, Theremin disappeared completely, as did the public exposure of his instrument. A listing of newspaper articles featuring the Theremin shows a gap of 54 years, between 1934 and 1988, during which no articles are listed. Theremin’s disappearance was so complete, in fact, that a history of electronic music published in 1981 claimed that Theremin had died around 1945 (Mattis and Moog, 1991 and Mackay, 1981).

During the ‘50s and ‘60s, the Theremin became primarily a ‘sound effects’ tool for radio shows and movie soundtracks, especially in the science fiction genre. Although some attempts at musical application were made in this genre (the theme to "Star Trek" and the soundtrack to "The Day the Earth Stood Still" are two examples) generally the Theremin had a "fall from grace" from a serious Art Music performance instrument to a low-brow theatrical effect. As the Los Angeles Times dubbed it in 1995, the "Thing that goes Oo-Wee-Oo" was so characteristic of ‘50s and ‘60s Sci Fi and horror, it later became the subject of nostalgia-parody through such movies as "Ed Wood" (Riemenschneider, 1995). If the Theremin’s sound had become a curiosity, its revolutionary interface was all but forgotten to the public.

However, the Theremin lived on with a cult-like following throughout this period. As electronic circuit building became easier and more affordable, occasional "Build your own Theremin" articles appeared in hobbyists’ magazines. Robert Moog, later a synth pioneer and chief advocate of the Theremin revival, built his first Theremin in 1949 (Mattis and Moog, 1991:49). Pop bands such as Led Zeppelin ("Whole Lotta Love") and the Beach Boys ("Good Vibrations") recorded hits which used the Theremin, although largely as a sound effect rather than a melodic instrument. This period served to separate Theremin users into two near-opposite camps: the slim elite of avant-garde electro-acoustic musicians, and (albeit adventurous) radio-friendly pop musicians. Even today, prominent pop and popular musicians regularly use the Theremin in their recordings: Fishbone, Portishead, Tom Waites, Pere Ubu, The Pixies, and many others, have used the Theremin in recent memory. However, the real advances and developments of this instrument, as well as the transposition of the Theremin philosophy to variants of the ‘Ether Music’ interface, have occurred within the avant-garde.

In 1982, the MIDI standard was created to address the need for a standardized communication protocol between electronic instruments. The profound impact that MIDI would have on the Theremin interface is not immediately obvious: MIDI is a heavily keyboard-biased language which sends data as a series of ‘note-on’ and ‘note-off’ messages, accompanied by a volume and pitch value. There are two significant assumptions in MIDI: 1) that volume over time is proportional to the initial attack (i.e.- ‘note on’ volume), as with a piano or plucked string instrument; 2) that pitch is non-continuous, and operates within the framework of the equal-temperament scale. MIDI is flexible enough to allow both volume change within a note and pitch variation between semitones, but not without some effort. MIDI is a language "native" to the keyboard. The effect on the final musical product is somewhat analogous to translating from one language to another: you can take most anything in one language and translate it, but often at the expense of the elegance and subtlety of the original statement. MIDI contrasts sharply with the Theremin, which was designed in part to undo the "tyranny of equal temperment", and allow both pitch variation without reference to any predetermined tuning system, and very accurate volume variation independent of pitch, and within a single note. Moreover, the Theremin is not "attack-oriented" like the percussive piano or the "note on/off" MIDI protocol.

However, MIDI did allow the complete separation of the sound-producing component (technically, the sound "synthesizer") from the controlling component, connected only by the MIDI cable. Since the musician interface was now an entirely independent component, it threw new significance on the control portion of the electronic instrument. Since the significance of the Theremin lay mostly in its alternate interface, this opened up a whole world of possibilities: the Theremin interface could be used to control any electronic synthesizer, not just the Theremin’s own sound-producing circuitry. The challenges faced by the interface designers in the acoustic era (namely, creating an effective control of a sound-producing mechanism while keeping the control interface ergonomically useable) were now reduced to issues of suitability for the human body and the potential for musical control and expression. No longer was the compatibility of the interface and the sound-producer an issue: by establishing a common middle-ground in MIDI, any equipment that was MIDI-compatible was automatically able to share information with any other MIDI-compatible equipment. The choice of an effective interface for the chromatic trumpet might have been very different had the sound-producing horn been MIDI-compatible!

In its most literal translation to the digital age, the inevitable "MIDI Theremin" was invented in the mid-90s as a controller versed in the MIDI protocol ( /mcv1a/index.htm). However, the most significant (and promising) interfaces have arisen from the inspiration of the Theremin, by taking the philosophies, ideals, and interface advances introduced by Theremin’s experiments and extending them to new interface designs using current technology, and often using completely different physical principles. In the next section, I will examine what those ideals were, as well as the myriad of Theremin-spin-offs introduced in the 80s and 90s.

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