Sat. Apr 20th, 2019

The first electronic music instrument turns 100 years old | Talent

The first electronic music instrument turns 100 years old | Talent

Álex is only ten years old and no instrument at home. This does not stop you from experimenting with music. From a browser, he is able to record his first compositions with a virtual piano and play with a beatbox on-line with which he creates his own beats. Without knowing it, he is composing electronic music. We asked Álex if he could tell us when the first electronic instrument was born and 50 years ago it seems like a figure that is more than exaggerated for someone with only a decade of life. When we tell you that there are approximately 100 and that you also touch in the air, do not think we're serious.

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In 1919 the physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen, better known as Léon Theremin, was experimenting with gases and studying the electromagnetic waves commissioned by the Russian government when he made a discovery that fascinated him: by moving an object closer to an electromagnetic field, the frequency reproduced by this device was altered. Theremin, who besides being a physicist, played the cello and was passionate about music, decided to turn this casual encounter into an instrument, giving rise to aetherophone, although later it would adopt its last name, Theremin.

Léon Theremin, posing with his instrument 'Thereminvox,' in New York on the twenties

From here begins to write the history of electronic music and part of the film. The truth is that the life of its inventor also gives for a movie.

To understand the fascination that this instrument aroused at the time, we must imagine what it supposed at the beginning of the 20th century to see Léon Theremin giving a recital, that is, moving his hands around two antennas from which music sprung, as if the strings of an invisible instrument. Pure magic.

How does the theremin work?

But magic was actually pure physics: sound is generated when something vibrates. And in a theremin, this vibration is produced by the electric current. The right antenna, usually vertically, controls the frequency (the tone). The closer you hold your hand, the sharper it will sound. However, the frequency that is obtained is not perceptible to the human ear, so it transforms the signal to make it audible and produce a sound similar to that of a cello. The left antenna, normally horizontal, controls the volume. The closer to the hand, the volume is lower.

In 1922, Theremin had the opportunity to present his invention to the very leader of the newborn Soviet UnionVladimir Lenin. Also fond of music, Lenin not only was fascinated by the instrument, he also wanted to learn to play it and adopt it as a symbol of a new era. To show the world what Russian inventiveness was capable of, he sent Theremin on tour in Europe, even playing in the Paris Opera and other emblematic places.

Six years later, he was also invited to travel to the US to demonstrate his technology there, where he finally patented the theremin. It reaped so much success that the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) He decided that everyone should have at home a radio and a copy of this Russian invention.

Clara Rockmore playing the theremin. Photograph taken by Lotte Jacobi probably in New York about 1936

In New York, he met Clara Rockmore. Of Russian origin, Rockmore had been a child prodigy. With only five years old, he was the youngest person to be admitted to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, already demonstrating his virtuosity with the violin. However, years later she suffered a bone disease caused by childhood malnutrition that she had suffered and forced her to leave this instrument. What at first seemed like a personal misfortune, was transformed into a script that turned her into a precursor of electronic music, when she began to play the theremin and went down in history as the first concertist of this instrument. His great knowledge of classical music and control of the technique allowed him to suggest improvements to Theremin himself to incorporate them in later versions.

Such was the bet of the RCA for the instrument, which bought the rights theremin to manufacture and produce it en masse, reaching to launch almost 500 units in the late 20s. However, the crack of 29 came very shortly after and the more than 200 dollars that the instrument cost was not a very affordable price for a crisis of these magnitudes. In addition, and contrary to what their manufacturers thought, the theremin was not at all an easy instrument to play, nor anyone who moved their fingers could produce music. It required a certain technique if it was intended to produce more than noise.

Despite the commercial failure, Léon Theremin founded his own companies, married an African-American dancer and managed to maintain commercial relationships with companies such as WestingHouse or RCA. When he seemed settled in the US, they claimed it from Russia. It has never been clear what actually happened: some versions say he was kidnapped; others, who returned due to economic problems. What does seem to happen is that he left everything in America hoping to return. When he set foot in the Soviet Union they accused him of being a spy and sent him to a gulag in Siberia and to a labor camp in Omsk. Recall that we are already in 1938, Lenin has been deceased for years and Stalin He led a campaign against alleged enemies of his government that culminated in the Great Purge, a period of massive repression in which millions of people were sent to labor camps or executed.

Léon Theremin playing his instrument. Photo taken in Paris during his European visit in the 20s

He also spent much of these years locked up, although this time he did it in a laboratory together with other scientists and engineers who worked in the service of the KGB. In this period he conceived many inventions that served for espionage during the cold war. For example, he created an almost undetectable microphone that was activated remotely and that was used to spy on the United States ambassador. This happened through a group of Soviet schoolchildren, who brought the ambassador a carved wooden shield, which he kept hanging in his office for years, until the State Department discovered the microphone by chance.

Theremin's current model marketed by the Moog brand. The modern version of these instruments includes a series of functions that help the sound balance and the execution of notes

In the following years, Theremin worked in the music conservatory of Moscow and already in the decade of the 70, in the Lomonosov University. His last golden age came to him at the end of the 80s, during the Perestroika, when he could travel again, touring Europe and the United States accompanied by his granddaughter Natalia. He also met with Clara Rockmore in New York, more than 50 years later; He was received with honors and taken to Stanford University.

Léon Theremin died shortly after, on November 3, 1993. He left behind a good collection of inventions such as microphones, alarms, a closed circuit television ... And, more importantly, his imprint in popular music thanks to songs belonging to bands like The Beach Boys, Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin or Jack White. And soundtracks that range from Alfred Hitchcock films to Mars attacks or television winks The Simpson or The big bang theory.


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