Arts: Woooo-eeeee

The theremin was the first electronic instrument. Invented by a Russian spy, it defined the sinister score of Hitchcock's Spellbound and gave a groundbreaking sound to the Beach Boys' `Good Vibrations'. By Robert Webb

Robert Webb
Monday 12 April 1999 23:02

In 1945, Alfred Hitchcock was searching for a new sound. His Freudian chiller, Spellbound, required a score that would really raise goosebumps. Hitchcock's composer, Miklos Rozsa, suggested using the theremin. Hitch agreed to give it a go although, Rozsa recalled later, he wasn't exactly sure if you "ate it or took it for headaches". In fact, the theremin had been around for 25 years and could lay claim as the earliest viable electronic musical instrument. Its ethereal wail was perfect for the psychotic terror that seeped through the film.

The theremin was named after its inventor, Leon Theremin, born in Russia in 1896. The leading authority on both man and machine is Albert Glinsky. "He was an extraordinary inventor," says Glinsky. "He supported the Bolsheviks in 1917 and after the Revolution was in Leningrad working on surveillance equipment and pioneering an early form of television. The instrument that bears his name was developed in 1920 while he was experimenting with radio apparatus to measure the dielectric constant of gasses."

This seems as improbable as Adolphe Sax stumbling across the saxophone whilst plumbing in a U-bend, but no less sensational is the invention itself. It resembles no more than a plain box of coils and wires with a couple of aerials protruding. Operation is quite simple, but fiendishly difficult to master. Glinsky explains: "Two high-frequency oscillators generate an identical note beyond the reach of human hearing. The theremin allows the natural body capacitance of the hands to control electrical fields in the air between the antennae."

Astonishingly, the theremin is unique as the only musical instrument played with no actual physical contact. With one hand controlling the pitch, and the other the volume, the chaotic whines and groans can be modulated to produce discrete musical pitches. Played proficiently, the sound is not unlike the human voice, a kind of ghost in the machine. Imagine listening to the Star Trek theme on shortwave radio.

Leon Theremin unsurprisingly attracted the attention of the KGB and his invention was classified as top secret. To escape the restrictions on his work, he fled Russia for the United States in 1927. "In America it was announced as a magical device which heralded a new era in electronic music," says Glinsky. RCA were quick to see the novelty value and manufactured 500, backed by a fierce publicity campaign. Many people were unsure what to make of the new gadget. Even more baffling was how to play it. "I almost don't like to say this, but it's really the most difficult musical instrument in the world to play," admits Glinsky.

At home, the untutored player simply had to imagine the notes and grope around in the air, hoping for the best. "Most people found it impossible, managing little more than a police-siren squeal. So they gave up and left it to gather dust in the garage." Only a few budding players became skilled. One virtuoso was Samuel Hoffman, a New York chiropodist. The theremin became a trademark in the NBC band, for whom Hoffman, when he wasn't shaving corns, played the violin. It attracted his attention and before long Hoffman was transforming himself into Hal Hope, celebrated bandleader and theremin player.

For a while, Hoffman was famous in Manhattan dancehalls, where his orchestra was billed as the "casino in the air". Eventually though, the theremin was just another gimmick: it failed to bring about the expected revolution in electronic music. "The anticipated technical developments just never happened," says Glinsky, "so people lost interest." Hoffman went back to his day job and, despondent, Leon Theremin returned to the Soviet Union in 1938, where he was imprisoned for "un-Soviet activities".

When Hitchcock's composer phoned the Hollywood musicians' union in 1945 for someone to play his score, there was only one thereminist listed who could read music: Dr Samuel J Hoffman. Hoffman's performance on Spellbound revived his thrilled cinema-goers. In 1947, he teamed up with British songwriter Harry Revel and full orchestra to record Music Out Of The Moon, the first in a series of 78s for Capital records, now the subject of a repackaged CD set. With selections entitled "Lunar Rhapsody", "Celestial Nocturne" and "Radar Blues", it presented music which, according to the sleeve notes, "can affect the sensitive mind in a way that is sometimes frightening... always fascinating".

It was followed by two more recordings in 1948 and 1950: Music For Peace Of Mind and Perfume Set To Music, with arrangements by Billy May and the carpet-slipper king of lounge music, Les Baxter. The theremin was back. Dr Hoffman's career took off: he remained in Hollywood and through the Fifties tingled spines on many classic sci-fi soundtracks, notably Bernard Herrmann's The Day The Earth Stood Still.

Twenty-one years after Hitchcock first took the theremin to the movies, Brian Wilson was also in Hollywood, recording one of pop's greatest three- and-a-half minutes. "Good Vibrations" was the Beach Boy's second song to feature the theremin: the first being "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times". A vital contribution to an astonishing record, it quickly became a pet sound. The following year Captain Beefheart reputedly drafted in none other than Sam Hoffman to electrify his first album, Safe as Milk. The theremin, in various customised forms, has since provided a background hum for artists as diverse as Kraftwerk, Paul Weller and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Jimmy Page has a special fondness for it, using it on Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" and on the recent Page and Plant tour. Hawkwind's thereminist, it is rumoured, even fashioned an axe-shaped version to fit in with his local music scene. The ultimate air guitar, you might say.

A few models have even found their way into museums. This month, the Science Museum in London is staging The Aetherphon, a dramatised history of the instrument. The organiser, Geraint Thomas, is excited. "We were one of the first to show a practical interest in the theremin. Our player, Andrew Mackay, studied under Lydia Kavina, a niece of Leon Theremin and a skilled player in her own right."

And Leon Theremin himself? In the early Nineties, Albert Glinsky met him in New York, filming a documentary about his long and improbable life. "Most people assumed he was dead," recalls Glinsky. "In fact, he'd been working at Moscow University but was shunned because of his work for the KGB. Although he had played in Europe in the mid-Eighties, this was the first time he had been in the US since he left in 1938. It was a very moving occasion." In 1991, two years before his death at 97, Leon Theremin was publicly honoured as the godfather of electronic music. Without him, we would have had no good vibrations.

Other Early Electronic Instruments:

Ondes Martenot Invented in 1928, it was the first successful electronic instrument that is still regularly used by orchestras today. Its primitive tones were first harnessed by Edgar Varese, the pioneer of artificial sound, on his Ecuatorial (1933-4), paving the way for experimental works by John Cage, Stockhausen and Messiaen (notably his exuberant Turangalila Symphony).

Rhythmicon American avant-garde composer Henry Crowell built the first electronic rhythm machine in 1930. In the Fifties it pulsed on producer Joe Meek's early recordings. Later, it was sampled by Tangerine Dream and reputedly used by Pink Floyd on Atom Heart Mother (1969).

Clavoline The clavoline arrived in 1947 and was used by composer John Barry before becoming the sound of the future thanks to the Tornados' hit "Telstar" (1962), produced by Joe Meek. It was used, incidentally, by Stanley Kubrick in Dr Strangelove (1963).

Electronium and Clavivox A couple of the many gizmos developed in the Fifties and Sixties by the composer, engineer, and electro genius Raymond Scott. The Clavivox was one of the first polyphonic sequencers and the Electronium was used on his album of ambient lullabies, Soothing Sounds For Baby (1963), which was recently reissued on Basta records. Scott also wrote merry melodies for Warner Bros cartoons and in the Seventies he was hired as an electronics whiz-kid at Motown Records.

Moog Synthesiser Robert Moog developed his ideas for an electronic instrument from building and selling theremin kits in 1961. After the success of Walter Carlos's Switched On Bach (1968) everyone seemed to be using a moog. Except Queen, who declared in their credits "no synthesisers!".

Mellotron Built by West Midlands firm Streetly Electronics, the first mellotron arrived in 1963. Its most famous appearance was on the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" (1967) and it was beloved of Seventies prog rockers. A set of keys triggered taped recordings of musical instruments. Most models had to be junked when the tapes stretched and the distortion became too much.

Stylophone This monophonic xylophone had all the musical sophistication of a klaxon. Manufactured by Dubreq in the late-Sixties, it was heavily promoted by Rolf Harris. David Bowie radioed Ground Control with it on "Space Oddity" (1969).

`Dr Hoffman and the Theremin' is available from Basta Records/Direct Distribution. Albert Glinsky's biography of Theremin, `Out of the Air' will be published next year. The Aetherphon is on at the Science Museum, London, 17 and 18 April

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