Theremin at 100: the enduring appeal of music's eeriest instrument

'It's stunningly emotional,' says Cyril Lance, designer of Moog's Claravox Centennial, a new limited edition model of theremin.

'It's stunningly emotional,' says Cyril Lance, designer of the Claravox, a new model of theremin

Moog Music, the world’s leading producer of theremins and analog synthesizers, has designed the Claravox Centennial to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the theremin. (Supplied by Moog Music)

One hundred years ago — when urban architecture was straining skyward, the radio was becoming a household item, and great strides were being made in aviation technology — Russian physicist Lev Theremin invented an electronic musical instrument that appeared to emit the sound of the future, captivating a public poised on the brink of the modern era.

Played without physical contact, the theremin was controlled by moving one's hands in the air near two metal antennas, thereby altering their magnetic fields. One antenna determined pitch, the other volume.

"It was the sound of pure electric current," said Sean Michaels, author of Us Conductors, a novel about the life of the theremin's inventor.

Emulating a disembodied voice, the theremin's potential was soon realized in America's burgeoning film industry, where it was regularly employed to accompany the supernatural and extraterrestrial — a flying saucer, a ray gun, an alien creature, and all sorts of other phenomena in black-and-white B movies of the 1950s. Beyond that niche, the theremin also found a place — albeit marginally — in classical and popular music.

Robert Moog was the first to mass-produce the theremin, which then inspired him to create his now iconic line of synthesizers. Moog died in 2005, but his company, Moog Music, continues producing synthesizers and theremins to this day.

In fact, to mark the theremin's 100th anniversary, Moog Music has announced a new model of the instrument, the Claravox, which French thereminist Grégoire Blanc demonstrates in this new video:

"If you look at Lev Theremin's life and his contribution, it really is the embodiment of someone who designs a musical instrument as the nexus of scientific innovation, technology, culture, societal change and how art and music mirror and also contribute to all these trends in society," explained Cyril Lance, chief engineer at Moog Music and designer of the Claravox, to CBC Music.

Priced at $2,000, the Claravox Centennial theremin is available to order through select Moog authorized dealers. (Supplied by Moog Music)

The Claravox is named after Clara Rockmore, the theremin's first virtuoso, and is an elite performance instrument that can be played in two modes: traditional and modern.

"Our culture is developing," reflected Lance. "We're in another technological revolution with electronics and digital technology and the way musicians interact with each other and with audiences. And so it seemed like the opportunity to create a new instrument that captured the magic and essence of the traditional theremin, as Lev Theremin envisioned it in its simplest form, but also to create something new that was taking the instrument forward and was relevant to today's trends and technology, and to bring that to theremin artists so that they could continue the evolution of their voice on the instrument."

The Claravox's modern performance mode offers the thereminist a much wider sonic vocabulary, according to Lance. "It enables you to really customize to much greater detail the actual performance field of the instrument," he explained. "It also allows you to integrate into modern electronic music paradigms by using digital communication interfaces to computer instruments, to other analog instruments, other digital instruments. It allows you to perform and record in the modern world."

'The genius of the instrument'

The Claravox is the latest in a series of Moog theremins dating back to the 1950s. Those include the theremini, a less expensive model with some digital interfacing aimed at beginners.

A constant in Moog's theremin designs over the decades has been close collaboration with the artists themselves. "Lev Theremin's instrument benefited from his famous collaboration with Clara Rockmore and that was a real partnership in actualizing his vision," Lance said. "And, Bob [Moog] worked very closely with many thereminists. And, you know, I've been very fortunate to work with many of the great theremin players of today and they've been instrumental in helping Moog continue Bob's work."

Among those Lance consulted during the development of the Claravox are Dorit Chrysler, who plays experimental pop, Pamelia Stickney, who got her start in jazz, and Blanc, who focuses on classical music and whose performance of Debussy's "Clair de lune," above, Lance singles out for special praise: "It's stunningly emotional because it really shows you the genius of the instrument ... exactly the way Lev Theremin intended it."

There's no better visceral reaction than when I take a theremin to a school. Their eyes just light up.- Cyril Lance

While Moog Music is the world's leading theremin maker, sales of the instrument are tiny in comparison with those of Moog's famous synthesizers. And yet, as Lance explained, "everybody at Moog feels that it's really important for us to continue making theremins — it was Bob's inspiration."

"There's something about the theremin, which is such a fundamental demonstration of physics and science," he continued. "There's no better visceral reaction than when I take a theremin to a school. Their eyes just light up. We want to continue that work.

"And then, we always sit back and take a breath and go, 'God, I can't believe how many theremins we sell and have sold throughout the years.' Like, we still sell a lot of theremins. There's a lot of interest, especially once we introduced the theremini, which is like a gateway. So, yes, it's still a viable instrument for us to make. And the community is increasing. People are using theremins in all sorts of ways, in all sorts of music, not just the classical theremin that you'd hear, say, coming from Clara Rockmore."

And so, even more reason for the Claravox's wider vocabulary and ability to draw on some of the sonic characteristics of other Moog synthesizers.

"Is it a large market where we're selling millions of theremins a year?" asks Lance. "No [laughs]. Could Moog survive on just selling theremins? No. But, I mean, we want to provide a broad range of tools for musicians based on what we love to do."

Grégoire Blanc plays a Moog Claravox Centennial theremin at Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte in France. (Supplied by Moog)
This electronic instrument emits a sound that is beautiful, haunting, a bit unsettling and utterly unmistakable. As theremin enthusiasts around the world are celebrating its centenary, we rebroadcast Lindsay Michael’s documentary “Out of Thin Air.” 23:13