First, some background.
The theremin is an instrument invented by Léon Theremin (Lev Sergeyevich Termen in Russian) in 1919. It has two metal antennae, and you play it not by touching it, but by moving your hands in the air between the antennae to control both the pitch and volume of the sound produced. We’ve written about the instrument in a past article, so head here to learn a bit more if you’re interested.
The instrument has an eerie, otherworldly quality that has led it to becoming prominent in sound design and soundtracks for films over the last 60 years. Its entertaining playability and portability have also provided the theremin with a place on the stage in rock and prog rock acts. Although it’s rare, we’ve even seen some orchestral and symphonic composers adopt the theremin as a solo melodic vehicle in concert music.
It’s often the case that in concert and in these symphonic works designed to highlight the theremin, we’re really able to hear its full range and expressive potential. So we’ve picked out five pieces from modern 20th century composers (some of which were written to accompany film) that have helped define the use of this instrument in a variety of capacities.
1. Bernard Herrmann — The Day the Earth Stood Still score (1951)
Let’s kick things off with a banger! Bernard Herrmann is a film scoring legend. Psycho, Vertigo, Citizen Kane, you name it, he’s probably written it. One of his earliest films, The Day the Earth Stood Still, directed by Robert Wise, was also the first time Herrmann made use of the theremin. And, in fact, Herrmann used two theremin soloists in the score!
The theremin and sci-fi are like two peas in a pod. Once the instrument became available to purchase, build, and learn on a somewhat wider scale, it was only a matter of time before it became the sound of the unknown in the world of sci-fi film scores. It sounds like a voice echoing out through space, like warbly electronic transmissions signaling an alien presence. Hermmann’s creative use of the instrument in this iconic score would go on to influence not only contemporary film composers like Danny Elfman, but also set the precedent for an entire genre of film which would blend score and sound design into one eery whole.
2. Kalevi Aho — Theremin Concerto (2014)
Let’s get a little more serious now. Finnish composer Kaveli Aho’s concerto for solo theremin and chamber orchestra (recording released in 2014, piece written a few years earlier), performed here by theremin all-star Carolina Eyck is an eight-part homage to Lapland, the most northerly region of Finland. Based on the eight-season division of the year, which is traditional for Lapland’s native Sami people, this work is dense with expressionistic harmony and icy, shimmering textures. It’s great, too, to hear the theremin being explored in all its range — often we only hear the middle and higher registers. In this piece, there are moments when the theremin takes on the sounds of other instruments, like the Chinese erhu or the viola, but also moments when it flutters like a bird. This piece is a real treat and a welcome introduction to the expansive oeuvre of Kaveli Aho.
3. Bohuslav Martinů — Fantasia (for Theremin, Oboe, String Quartet, and Piano, H.301) (1944)
From the influential mid-century Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů, we have his Fantasia for theremin, oboe, string quartet, and piano. Composed in the summer of 1944 and premiered the next year in New York, this work may not be one of Martinů’s better-known pieces; but, nevertheless, it’s exciting to see a composer exploring a new and exciting instrument so late in their career. With the microtonal possibilities of this instrument, the entire tonal spectrum is your oyster, and Martinů’s off-kilter expressive notation really brings out the depth of beauty and unrest that this instrument is capable of producing.
4. Fazıl Say — Universe Symphony (2012)
Hold onto your hats! This work by Turkish composer and pianist Fazil Say is no easy listen. It’s unique, original, texturally dense, and features some heavy theremin! Wrestling with the following four questions, the piece’s inspiration is far from light-hearted: 1) What was there before the Big Bang — space, clouds of dust? 2) The universe is expanding, but in what direction and towards what? 3) Are there other lives in the universe and throughout the galaxies? 4) Is there a God?
This piece also makes use of other “unusual” concert instruments, such as the waterphone, the daxaphone, the log drum, Hapi drum, Ufo drum, and more to convey a sense of music as an alien and unearthly being in and of itself.
5. Ennio Morricone — Once Upon a Time in the West score (1968)
Sergio Leone’s classic, epic Spaghetti Western was one of many in the genre scored by famed Italian composer Ennio Morricone, whose work we profiled pretty extensively here. Now, the original version of this piece was written for solo voice, and it was only arranged later for the theremin as a replacement, but dang does it work beautifully! We just couldn’t leave it out.
In some of the earlier works on this list, we’ve heard the theremin produce quartertones, reverberated sci-fi soundscapes, dissonance, and virtuosity. But here, it’s just plain pretty. In fact, it’s simply beautiful! The theremin holds center stage here showing yet another timbral side to the instrument: its angelic, siren, somnambulant quality and characteristics.
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