Early Electronic Instruments

It’s difficult knowing where to start on the subject of electronic musical instruments and I mean to distinguish between electronic musical instruments and electronic music which is another subject entirely requiring a separate study. One immediately assumes this is a 20th century subject which I suppose it is - however I would like to make reference to that famous quote of the 18th century.. “Music is the electric soil in which the spirit thinks, lives and invents. All that’s electrical stimulates the mind to flowing surging musical creation. I am electrical by nature” said not by Stockhausen in one of his former lives but none other than Ludwig van Beethoven. In fact electricity had a grip on musical production as early as the 16th century where it is said that in one French monastery monks used static electricity to trigger bells.
But it was the beginning of the 20th century when electronic circuitry began to be exploited to produce a new sound world, and this is really the key to electronic instruments, the quest musicians and composers had to create new sounds previously unheard.


It all started when ‘futurist’ Luigi Russolo (1885-1947) developed his ‘noise machines’. The Italian futurist movement which included poets and artists as well as musicians were of the opinion that their art forms had lost the ability to surprise and new ideas were needed to expand and push back existing boundaries of 19th century traditionalism. Russolo documented some of these ideas in his book ‘The Art of Noises’ and although not electronic, his ideas of motors, power saws, streetcar sounds, explosions etc. to create new musical canvases paved the way for the electronic revolution in the early 1920s. Russolo did develop a keyboard instrument to play some of these sounds mechanically - this ‘Noise Harmonium’ is often considered to be the precursor of the synthesiser. On the other side of the Atlantic, Americas’ ‘bad boy of music’ George Antheil premiered his noise based Ballet Mecanique in Carnigie Hall. The piece is scored for ten pianos, eight xylophones, four bass drums and four ‘mechanical effects’ persons playing assorted electric bells, sirens and aeroplane propellers which when started in the Carnegie Hall performance in 1927 almost literally blew the audience away!

The first real attempt at a purely electronic instrument was probably the Telharmonium made by Thaddeus Carhill in 1902. It was a huge structure weighing in at 200 tons and was played across New Yorks’ telephone system. Classical music was played on its keyboards and sounds were transmitted by 2 huge cog wheeled rotors over magnets. The whole thing met a somewhat damp end when it was cast into the Atlantic ocean as it interfered too much with the New York telephone system. The best known and longest survivor of innovative electronic instruments is surely the Theremin. 

Lev Sergevitch Terman or Leon Theremin as he became known in the west was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1896. After studying physics and astronomy at university in 1918 he developed an instrument whose sound is still as unique now as it was then. Initially called a Thereminvox later simply Theremin, the unique aspect of the instrument is that it is ‘space controlled’ in other words the player never actually touches or makes contact with it. Volume, dynamics and pitch are controlled by two antennae generating an electromagnetic field and the sound is produced from two high frequency oscillators, the early versions used oscillating (thermionic) valves, the resulting sound being the difference of the frequencies. To change pitch the player varies the distance between the right hand and the pitch antenna, and to change volume, the player varies the distance between left hand and the middle of the volume antenna. (Full volume occurs when the hand is removed completely from the antenna). Changes in sound will occur with any bodily movement so it is essential that the player stands in an almost seance-like state, absolutely motionless. Like most ingenious inventions, Theremin stumbled upon the sound by accident when he was working on an experiment with a radio set. In 1927 Theremin and Clara Reisenberg (later Rockmore) came to America to demonstrate the Theremin.

Clara Rockmore was a professional violinist in Russia and began collaborating with Theremin after hearing this sensitive wide-ranging musical instrument. In America, Theremin was quick to develop his ideas further by constructing a ‘cello’ Theremin which was held between the knees like a conventional cello but no contact was made with the instrument - hands and fingers moved up and down the fingerboard area to produce any passage that a conventional cello could play. He even set up an entire studio space where dancers would perform and their movements would trigger pitch and volume changes within the space (known as the ‘terpsitone dance platform’) and there was a keyboard electronic timpani, and a keyboard-controlled complex rhythmic pattern generator (could this have been the first drum machine?!). The technology of the Theremin led to other inventions outside of music namely burglar alarm systems where a sensing rod and ‘force field’ would detect any intrusive movement and thereby set off an alarm. Theremins’ life was peppered with controversy, intrigue and ill fate.

Whilst in America he fell in love and married a young black dancer Levinia Williams which, at that time in the US was still racially unacceptable and resulted in him losing favour in many of the social circles he moved in, but perhaps the most incredible episode in his life came in the mid 1930s when he was forcibly removed from America and taken back to Russia. Astonishingly people in the west believed him to be dead, so convinced of this that a German book on modern music lists a biography of Theremin which states ‘b.1896 - d. 1945’. However the truth was discovered many years later when Clara Rockmore, the first Theremin virtuoso travelled to Russia and discovered that he had spent 7 years in a prison/labour camp and from 1942 to 1967 had been working for the KGB in radio aviation and un-scrambling politically sensitive tapes for the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Luckily the Theremin continued to gain popularity albeit not always in a way that Theremin, Clara Rockmore and Theremins’ great niece Lydia Kavina would have liked. Rockmore always considered the Theremin as an instrument of great individualality and expressive beauty to be given equal musical status as a violin or the human voice, in fact there is a Concerto for Theremin and orchestra by A. Fuleihan which was premiered by Leopold Stokowski in New York in 1945, Symphonic Mystery for theremin and orchestra by Pashchenko, Fantasy for theremin, string quartet, oboe and piano by Martinu and Rockmore made many arrangements of classical pieces and produced virtuostic performances of these on the Theremin.


Unfortunately Hollywood in the 40s and 50s saw it as an instrument capable of conjuring up very eerie nuances for film soundtracks such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, Spellbound, The Lost Weekend and countless other B-movie classics of the time. After a short lull in popularity Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys had the bright idea of using the Theremin in the 1967 hit Good Vibrations. It was in the late 60s that Bob Moog became interested in the Theremin and began building his own versions. Today the Theremin lives on by the efforts of people like Barry Wooding, Bruce Woolley, Tony Henk, and Tony Bassett all Theremin enthusiasts and makers and all British! and Lydia Kavina tours the world giving lecture recitals on the Theremin. Present day use of the Theremin in the pop world can be found on albums by Pulp, Blur and Portishead.

Leon Theremin died at the age of 97 the day after a unique documentary film made by Steve M. Martin was shown on TV here in 1993.

In the hands of virtuosi such as Clara Rockmore and Lydia Kavina the Theremin appears quite easy to play as no contact is made on the instrument, but make no mistake, this instrument has stood the test of time through the synthesiser and digital revolution by the pure musicality of the player.  You have to find your own pitch so most players either have or develop perfect pitch and as there are no mechanical or tactile elements like strings, pistons, membranes etc. the means of expression is instant from body gestures and minute movements of a finger or arm to the resultant sound.



















With the advent of transistors, electronic music and instruments began to take off in the 1960s.
Since Bob Moog’s initial interest in the theremin he has been the key figure in the development of the modern day synthesiser and although early versions were huge great monoliths taking up an entire room, they gradually reduced in size and improved in quality. One milestone of this development was the VCS-3 synthesiser created by EMS (Electronic Music Studios). Peter Zinovieff, David Cockerell and others launched the VCS-3 and a little later the Synthi AKS which was a VCS-3 in a suitcase with a small keyboard, in the mid 60s. Although the VCS-3 was really an electronic music studio in a box about the size of a stereo reel to reel tape machine, musicians began to use it to transform other instruments. One such instrument was the Electrochord developed by pianist/conductor and composer Peter Eötvos. The electrochord is a Hungarian peasant zither with 15 strings connected to a VCS-3 synthesiser. The sound and the resonance of the zither are recorded by two contact microphones and modulated by the VCS-3 which transforms the sound by means of frequency, amplitude, ring modulation and filtering. Along side the electrochord was the Electronium developed by pianist Harald Boje. The electronium is a sound generator with special combinations of filters. Its frequencies extend to both the upper and lower limits of audibility. A keyboard allows the production of fixed pitches, while a potentiometer produces glissandi. Sounds can be modulated by a ring-modulator and wah-wah filter. Both the electrochord and electronium were used extensively by these musicians in much of Stockhausens’ music of the late 60s and 70s.


Curiously there have been some interesting technical and musical relationships between events of 80 or 90 years ago. One technical aspect is that virtually the same technology was used in the famous Hammond organ as was used originally by Carhill in his Telharmonium that is the rotating cog wheels over magnet mechanism. Also the instrument builder and researcher Walter Fabeck has come up with several inventions that look back to Theremin technology: they include the Chromasone and Air -Drums. The Chromasone is a distance-measuring keyboard installation which can be tilted and rotated to produce varying responses to the players movements around it. The player can manipulate sampled and synthesised sounds by ‘muscular memory’ because the keyboard pattern on the ‘virtual keyboard’ (which is a block of illuminated perspex) is calibrated exactly to the dimensions of a conventional piano keyboard, although the hand don’t actually touch it. As with the Theremin, expression is given to the music by a variety of gestural actions which are often implied by a pianist but never translated into the final musical result,e.g. the ‘follow-through’ arm movement and finger pressure and movement in the ‘air’ all add to create minute changes in expression. Musically, looking back to Russolo and his noise machines and sounds of industry etc immediately brought to mind latter day Steve Reich in particular his work City Life where he uses the sounds of pile drivers, street sounds etc. now produced via sampling keyboard technology - I wonder what Russolo and his futurist chums would make of today’s technology?!
Some selected recordings of early electronic instruments.
(Unfortunately these can be very rare and hard to find but I have listed titles of works that feature these instruments together with any audio reference I have).

In 1930 the german Friedrich Trauwein exhibited his newly invented Trautonium and again the circuitry was similar to that of the theremin but the Trautonium had extra devices which enabled the player to obtain fixed pitches of the equal tempered scale. Hindemith wrote a Concerto for Trautonium and orchestra in 1931 but the man who explored the Trautonium in greater depth was Freidrich Trautweins’ collaborator at the radio experimental station of the Berlin Conservertoire, Oskar Sala. In 1952 Sala designed the mixture-trautonium which had two manuals made up of two strings stretched over two metal rails, two pedals, registers providing various tone colours and subharmonic mixtures, electronic percussion section with generator, relay interrupter and precision controls. Since then the mixture trautonium has been enlarged by the addition of auxiliary equipment which comprises magnetic sound delay controls, frequency transduction, resonance plate and a stereophonic output unit. Visually the Trautonium resembles an old pipe organ whose keyboards have been ripped out. The sound is produced by the player depressing curved metal ‘keys’ which make contact with the wire and the metal rail. Oskar Sala wrote and performed his own Musique Stereo for orchestra, mixture-Trautonium and studio electronics and composer Harald Genzmer (b.1909) wrote Cantate for soprano, mixture-Trautonium and studio electronics and Suite of Dances for electronic instruments.

Peter Eötvos and the Electrochord

Harald Bojé and the Electronium

The Art of the Theremin. Works by Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saens, DeFalla, Tchaikovsky etc. played by Clara Rockmore. Delos D/CD 1014
Various tracks by Radio Science Orchestra are available via the Internet.
Further information on Theremin ‘activity’ can be obtained from Charlie Draper
Electronique et Stereophonie Musique Spatiale. Erato STU 70633 LP
Electronium and Electrochord
Various works by Karlheinz Stockhausen including:
Aus den Seiben Tagen
Spiral versions for Electrochord and Electronium
Pole fur Two
Prozession. All available from Stockhausen-Verlag 
(This article was published as ‘Dinosaus to Digital’ in AVANT magazine issue 5.)

© 2019 Malcolm Ball email: rechants1@yahoo.co.uk