In my novel, The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, the eponymous Lena Gaunt – musician, octogenarian, junkie – is Music’s Most Modern Musician; theremin player of legend. So, I’ve been thinking a lot about theremins for the last few years, while I’ve been writing the novel. I may even have become a little obsessed with them (OK, disclosure: so obsessed that last summer I embroidered an RCA theremin on a cushion). Because I’ve been thinking about them so much and for so long, I didn’t quite realise just how unfamiliar a musical instrument the theremin is to most people. I’ve been asked if they really exist; or did I just make the whole thing up for the novel?
Yes, theremins exist, and not just on my sofa. So it seems that a short (and slightly random) history of the theremin is in order: a little demystification; something about the sound of it; and a taste of why it belongs in this novel of mine.
The theremin was the first electronic musical instrument, invented and first displayed in the 1920s in New York by Russian inventor Leon Theremin. You may have come across the theremin without recognising it – ever heard the ear-wormy, slightly annoying theme to TV series Midsomer Murders? That’s a theremin. Theremin features in the soundtracks of films like The Lost Weekend (1945) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), sci-fi classics The Thing (From Another World) (1951) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), bible epic The Ten Commandments (1956), and Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) and Mars Attacks! (1996), among many many more. Its sound — often eerie, melancholic, other-worldly, inhuman — means it’s the classic go-to instrument if you want to indicate crazy, alien, or just plain old going off the rails.
But it’s not just the sound of the theremin that’s disconcerting, unnerving; it’s the way it’s played. The theremin is essentially a box filled with electronics, with two metal antennae protruding: a horizontal loop controlling volume, and an upright aerial controlling pitch. And here’s the thing: you play the theremin without physically touching the loop or the aerial – you move your hands and fingers close to them, close to the machine, teasing it, but you never quite touch it, never quite connect.
It’s not difficult to get noise from a theremin — anyone can wave their hands about and make it squeal — but it’s notoriously difficult to play well. The best players – like Clara Rockmore, one of the great thereminists, who worked with the instrument’s inventor, Leon Theremin; and like Lena Gaunt in my novel – can make it sound quite beautiful, almost like a cello, or a human voice.
Years ago — when I was still trying to find a way into my novel — I’d started writing notes, circling around a character I had in my head. I knew she was a musician, but I couldn’t pin down what her instrument was, and I needed to do that before I could write much more about her. When I watched the documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey — a history of the theremin and its inventor, Leon Theremin — I knew I’d found it; an instrument you play without touching was the perfect metaphor for how I imagined the main character, Lena Gaunt, lived her life.
The film was also where I encountered Clara Rockmore, the first virtuoso player of the theremin. But I knew I didn’t want to base my character, Lena, strictly on Clara; I had my own plans for Lena, and I wanted the fun of making her up. Film and still images of Clara — from a young girl to an old woman — in the documentary gave me some strong visual cues for Lena. As I developed the character, I aimed to distance myself and Lena from the film, and from Leon Theremin, and from the real life story of the theremin. Clara Rockmore was a starting point for Lena, rather than a model.