Review: The Return of the Theremin

An exhibition of designer theremins marks a revival of this classic electric instrument

In the 1920s, Leon Theremin played to packed concert halls in Europe and the United States, wowing audiences with his newly invented electronic musical instrument, the aetherphone. Rebranded as the theremin, the gesture-controlled device was available for sale in the United States by the end of the decade. For a moment it seemed as if it might be able to achieve the kind of success later found by other 20th-century electrical musical innovations such as the electric guitar and the Moog synthesizer.

But between its unusual style of play—performers move their hands in proximity to two antennas that control pitch and volume—and an expensive price tag during the Great Depression, the theremin failed to make the big time. Not even a burst of enthusiasm for its futuristic, otherworldly sound from the composers of science-fiction film scores in the 1950s could bring it mainstream success. But the theremin never completely went away as an instrument, and it occasionally even finds its way into popular music hits. Now it’s having a revival of a different kind—as an art object.

This past October and November, the Judith Charles Gallery, in New York City, hosted an exhibition titled Odd Harmonics. Along with scheduled musical performances, an original Theremin aetherphone, and other artwork, the exhibition focused on a series of theremins constructed by François Chambard.

Ranging in price from US $6000 to $20 000, Chambard’s theremins are whimsical and colorful constructions of wood and metal. The simple antennas of the typical theremin have been replaced with a still-functional assortment of grilles, funnels, sheets, and combs. Each antenna acts as one plate of a variable capacitor, with the player’s body forming the other plate.

These antennas give each theremin a different feel when played, says Chambard, who is a New York City–based furniture designer. The basic sound production system in each theremin is taken from a Moog Etherwave—a commercially produced model used by many modern players—and Chambard worked with technicians to tweak both the system and each new antenna to ensure a good musical response. Chambard says he was drawn to create the series after seeing how intrigued visitors were with a theremin he had included in a show about furniture designed for audio/visual equipment. “It provided a sense of play, of interaction between the user and the object,” he says. The theremin’s long history was also part of the appeal. The 1920s, says Chambard, were a “time of great invention and creativity,” which he hopes his fantastically shaped theremins evoke.

This article originally appeared in print as “Odd Harmonics.”

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