4 Jul 2023

Music feature: The theremin

From Afternoons, 2:30 pm on 4 July 2023

Theremin enthusiast Henika visited our Auckland studio this week to talk to Jesse Mulligan about this “otherworldly, ethereal” instrument.

Despite its futuristic sound, the instrument was invented over 100 years ago, she says, in 1919 by Leon Theremin.

Henika and Jesse with the theremin

Henika and Jesse with the theremin Photo: Ayana Piper-Healion RNZ

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“He lived a fascinating life, he was a physicist born in Russia, he was in his early 20s when he invented the theremin, but he wasn’t intending to make an electrical instrument, he was studying electromagnetic waves, all this electrical stuff was new science at the time.

“He just happened to come across something that would change sound by motion, he also invented burglar alarms and motions sensors and early form of television and wire taps.”

Fortunately, Theremin had a musical ear, she says.

“Had another scientist come across this they wouldn’t have taken it in the direction he did.

“He decided to make a musical instrument and toured around the world doing it. He wanted to create a whole orchestra of theremins.”

Henika, a musician who plays double bass, was given a theremin by her partner for Christmas. It has some similarities to the double bass, she says.

"It works in a similar way there’s no frets, no visual cues. There’s still that physical contact and when you have that physical contact with an instrument you’ve got some bearings.

“On one hand it’s very easy to play because all you do is wave your arms about, but to play something very specific and recreate it every time, is very, very hard.”

She performs with it live around the country.  

“I never really learned to play this thing properly, I am a musician, I’ve studied music my whole life, but I treat this as something that’s a little bit of free expression for me to have fun with and perform live because it’s such a fascinating thing visually.”

She recently made an album based on New Zealand birds on which she used the theremin and says it is particularly adept at recreating bird-like sounds.

When she played a DOC fundraiser on Tiritiri Matangi Island she attracted more than just a human audience, she says.

“Some of the birds turned up and joined in, and I got pooed on, kokako, they were the ones that responded because it’s quite a territorial thing for them, I got my source recordings from Tiritiri, so it must have been one of their friends or rivals on one of the recordings.”

The Theremin’s ethereal sound got it used on soundtracks for films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951.

And, famously, a kind of Theremin was used on 'Good Vibrations' by the Beach Boys.

“It is a sort of theremin, but it’s not like the one I’ve got here.

“A trombone session player made his own version using a kind of trombone-style slider, so he could recreate exact notes.”

Henika playing the theremin

Photo: Nicholas Charles Photography NZ