Theremins

“I know all about theremins, I could do a beginner’s guide,”  he said. “You aren’t just going to make it all up are you,  like you usually do?” we said. [Editor reads copy, rolls eyes]

If there’s one memorable thing my dear grandmother told me just moments before she was arrested for impersonating my grandmother, it’s this: never trust a theremin. 

Other instruments are more straightforward. With a harp, you twang it until the strings snap. With a synthesiser, you press the keys to send signals down the keyboard tubes. With a cor anglais, you do whatever it is cors anglais do. But with a theremin, there’s no touching involved: be suspicious of any instrument that wolf-whistles if you try and sneak up on it.

The theremin was invented by Leon Restaurants 100 years ago. Early versions were a cereal box with an antenna sticking out, which secretly broadcast BBC Radio 6 Music to Soviet Russia. It was commercially unsuccessful because the wider public was into more interesting things like jazz trumpets, Wurlitzer organs and the Second World War. 

In the 1950s, Robert Moog, named after the Moog synthesiser, began selling theremin kits. He used better quality materials such as metal, wood and bits of theremin. Suddenly everyone thought theremins were cool, even though film composer Bernard Herrmann used one to summon a flying saucer invasion of Earth in which a silver space robot called Gort lasered things with its massive oblong eye.

Like maths or Greek or musical burping, the theremin is difficult to master. The frequencies vary depending on how close you are, how far up the antenna you are, and how much polyester there is in your trackie bottoms. You can’t just gesture wildly until something happens. Theremin players use long-perfected arm movements with names such as Disco Traffic Cop, Desperate Charades, Electrocuted Octopus, and of course Apocalyptic Semaphore. 

I don’t own a theremin, but I have been practising at home. The other day, I waved my hands at my toaster for at least 12 minutes, and I’m sure it would have made a noise if it was a theremin. While I was at it, I threw shapes at my sofa, waved my arms at a pouffe and almost put my shoulder out writhing at my ironing board. What I discovered was, apart from next door’s cat, nothing else squeals like a theremin when faced with furious gesticulation.

The theremin probably seemed alien to 20th century people, where everything was controlled using wires or big pokey sticks. In the hands-free 21st century, where you can wave a Wii remote to win a 10-pin bowling tournament, the instrument makes a lot more sense. I no longer need to physically look up the weather forecast, I just shout at Siri and she will conveniently misunderstand me and order 96 packs of toilet roll. 

The “internet of things” may yet transform our domestic lives, for example, when you’re low on butter your fridge will somehow know because you’ve shoved the internet up its pipes. That said, nothing good can come from turning your fridge into an artificial intelligence programmed to make the universe several degrees colder unless someone opens the door too much and then it’s got the chilling ability of a suitcase.

All this experimental oscillating has got me on the Deep Heat. I guess what I’m trying to say is I’d rather use more conventional electronic instruments.  I want the heft of synth knobs, the encrusted dirt of a ribbon controller, that slightly sticky F above middle C compromised by soup spillage. As I said on my last date, I want to twang until something snaps, not wave aimlessly at a pole. In the words of my beloved grandmother, who apparently was a wolf all this time, “grrrr, howl, gnash gnash, grrrrrr.” Too right, gran.

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