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Weird science

The Russian researcher Leon Theremin was supposed to build a better television. Instead he created the world's oddest musical instrument. Then things got really strange, says Bill Bailey

Alison Goldfrapp playing the theremin

Theremin-lover Alison Goldfrapp. Photo: Simon Chapman/Live

The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications column, Monday October 18 2004

In the article below we state that "Clara Schumann's singing ability was lauded at the time far in excess of her brother Robert's compositions". Clara Schumann (nee Wieck, 1819- 96) was actually a concert pianist who married the composer Robert Schumann.

When I talk to people about the theremin and how I use it in my stage show, there is usually a moment of surly incomprehension. I follow it up with: "You know, the thing that goes wooooo-eeeee ." Ah, now it's smiles and Tennent's Super all round. It can get frustrating. If you were a trumpet player introducing yourself at a party, and the word "trumpet" was met with blank looks, and you had to mime an air trumpet, and say: "You know, the thing that goes tah tah parp parp," it would get quite tiresome.

The theremin was invented by accident in 1919 by Leon Theremin, a Russian scientist, and so this makes it the world's first electronic instrument. He was working on radio surveillance equipment and pioneering an early form of television when, as you do of an evening, he happened to move his hands between two high-frequency oscillators. Normally when you do this, as I am sure you are aware, they produce a single note way beyond the realm of human hearing. However, in this case, the natural body capacitance of his hands luckily controlled the electrical field in the air between the antennae. It produced an ethereal, haunting sound, not unlike wooo-eeeeee .

He immediately roused the suspicions of the KGB - or rather, the equivalent at the time - who regarded the device as a state secret and monitored his work very closely. Or, more likely, they thought he was a weirdo who might do something stupid, like try to magnetise Lenin.

He continued perfecting his invention until 1927, when the KGB were closing in and he fled to America, where his career flourished and his creation was hailed as the greatest instrument of the future.

Back then it would have been a truly strange sight. It consisted of a large wooden box on thick legs. A metal loop protruded horizontally from one side and a vertical aerial sprouted from the other. It resembled a child's drawing of what a robot might look like.

The player would stand behind the box and move his left hand through the loop to control the volume, and his right hand back and forth towards the aerial to control the pitch. It was, and is, fiendishly difficult to play, which led to a bit of a drop-off in interest after an initial rash of theremins being sold to excited amateurs. Nonetheless, it gained huge media interest to the point that Leon Theremin became something of a celebrity on the New York social scene.

It was here that he met Clara Rockmore, an accomplished violinist who was born in Lithuania in 1911. She had an extraordinary affinity with the theremin, playing it with a dexterity and depth of feeling that has not since been matched. A photo of her in 1930 shows a beautiful young woman, her arms raised aloft, a look of intense rapture on her face. As she said, to master the theremin "every movement you make is a perfect synchronisation of sound and motion". The sound of the early theremins was somewhere between a violin and a ghostly human voice, so for audiences at that time the combination of this and her charismatic presence must have been captivating.

What may have been the key to her skill with the instrument is that she had "perfect pitch". This is the term given to those people who can pluck a given note out of the air and hum it without reference to a piano. As the very essence of theremin playing is quite literally plucking a note from thin air, this would seem to be a distinct advantage. Perfect pitch, or absolute pitch as it's sometimes called, occurs entirely at random in about one in every 10,000 of us, and I'm one of them. From as early as I can remember, I was able to pick out the pitch of things, not just instruments but washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dentists' drills. There will be people who have perfect pitch who have no musical ability or interest whatsoever and bumble through life wondering why they can hum the exact pitch of a Magimix. It's not just humans; songbirds and even wolves have perfect pitch. This is an idea I've had for a documentary: Getting a Wolf to Play the Theremin.

Clara Rockmore was rightly hailed in her time as a true star. Just as Clara Schumann's singing ability was lauded at the time far in excess of her brother Robert's compositions, Rockmore gained more recognition for her playing of the instrument than Theremin himself ever did for inventing it. She regularly gave recitals through the 1930s and 1940s, receiving warm praise from music critics. At the time, it was seen as a new legitimate orchestral instrument and her repertoire was wide-ranging. She continued to perform with the theremin and was the subject of numerous films and documentaries until her death in 1998.

For Leon Theremin, things didn't pan out quite so well. Although he patented his device in 1929 and licenced RCA to sell it, it wasn't the huge success he had hoped. Things went more pear-shaped in 1938, when he was kidnapped by the KGB at his New York apartment and spirited back to the USSR, where he was imprisoned for anti-Soviet activity. He spent many hard years in a labour camp, and eventually ended up in a one-bedroom flat in Moscow, where he died in 1993.

His legacy, the theremin, lives on and the sound he brought to the world has been immortalised in cult film soundtracks like Spellbound and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Brian Wilson's own musical genius found a home for it on Good Vibrations. But it's not just an arcane musical oddity. More and more new bands and musicians are discovering the theremin as the technology has allowed for a greater user-friendliness. Beck, Portishead and most recently Goldfrapp have been entranced by its strangeness.

I have been using theremins in my live shows for the last six years. It was a tiny handheld one at first, with just a pitch aerial. These days I have two Bob Moog's Etherwave theremins, which are terrific live instruments. Apart from the surprising variety of sounds, from deep growls to fine, high, singing vibratos, they require a degree of physicality to play. You can dance around them, play them with guitars, kazoos, cans of beer, whatever.

It seems unfair that Leon Theremin, inventor, visionary and scientist didn't have the freedom to pursue the life of a respected academic that he might have had in the west. His ideas were too far ahead of his time perhaps - like Brian Wilson, he "just wasn't made for these times". It's not all doom though. In the latter part of his life, he gave lectures to informed and respectful audiences in Europe after his "rediscovery" in 1989. It must have come as a balm to the many years of isolation and hardship in Russia. A consolation for the sort of scene that might have played out at his Moscow apartment block. As he moves in, some of the tenants outside stop him and ask: "Are you the new bloke?" "Yes I am Leon Theremin, inventor of the theremin." Nothing, just blank looks. "You know, the thing that goes woooooo-eeeeee ?' Smiles and Stoli all round!

· Good Vibrations: The Story of the Theremin is on Radio 4 next Thursday. Bill Bailey plays the Apollo, London W1, from October 25 and releases his live DVD on November 22

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