Humans are auditory creatures, and auditory communication is a crucial part of human interaction. Music is a form of this. Communication implies an exchange which requires contact, whether that comes in a physical form or more abstractly. The tactile action of a player releasing the strings of a guitar or pressing the keys of a piano transforms the internal emotions and message of the player into music, which is then heard by listeners. The message is transmitted through a physical medium, so the element of touch becomes crucial.
Image Credit: BBC Arts
However, in 1920 Leon Theremin invented an instrument which was distinctive because it required no direct contact with the performer’s body in order for music to be played. The theremin is a monophonic instrument, its body a rectangular box with two metallic rods at either end, one controlling frequency, the other volume. By interacting with the fields around these metal rods, the player is able to produce scales and play entire pieces only by moving their hands through the air. Ideas are transformed into sounds by movement in space. The abstract is manifested into the perceivable audio, without requiring a direct mediation through contact with the material.
Perhaps it strikes us because the agency in the performance shifts. Space becomes the intermediary between performer and sounds, as opposed to the concrete mechanics of a key or string. This intangibility contributes an element of transparency to this new form of communication. We engage not just with the player’s music, but the movements of their body - reflecting their inner state as much as the music itself. This instrument makes crucial the element of performance in communication. It differs from something like the swaying of a violin player, as the with the theremin the motion of the body is not an accompaniment or reaction to sound, but the source of it.
A crucial part of this defamiliarisation is tied to the visual. It begs us to question how we are affected by physical movement and shape and what it contributes to our understanding of music - making it no longer a purely auditory activity. The unfamiliarity associated with the knowledge that the player was not in contact with the instrument is reflected in the sound it produces. The music of the theremin gained popularity in the 50s, being used in the soundtracks to many famous films, like 'The Lost Weekend'. Even when heard separated from the visuals of performance, the theremin’s sound came to be recognised as eerie and otherworldly.
Perhaps the creator of the instrument sensed its potential to invoke this emotion, as Leon originally named his invention the ‘ether-phone’ (1), - a reference to the more archaic definition of ether as “a highly elastic substance ... believed to permeate all space, including the interstices between the particles of matter" (2). The enveloping quality of ether hints back to the properties of the theremin, its music all encompassing, and the very action required to play it implying the overlap between sound and space. The delivery of a message is often as important as its content, and the theremin exemplifies this.
The medium through which we forge connections is spatial, and the theremin turns this space of transfer into one of action and creation. By getting rid of the role of haptic perception in creating sound, it beckons exploration through movement of the body in space, rather than through actions performed on a surface. This changes the senses engaged when playing the instrument and listening to its music, and with different sensory engagement our perception of something familiar is altered.
Edited by Alexia McDonald, Head Digital Editor
1.Baron, Andy, and Mike Buffington. “RCATheremin.com.” RCATheremin.com, rcatheremin.com/.
2."Ether" OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2018. Web. 28 January 2019.