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Ether-Wave Music

An article appeared in the Literary Digest on October 29, 1927 as a follow-up to "The Latest Marvel in Music".

THE OUTLANDISH SQUEALS of the cheap radio set have now been tamed and made musical. So at least we are assured by Waldemar Kaempffert, who tells in a special dispatch from Berlin to the New York Times of a demonstration made in that city by a young Russian professor, Leo Theremin of the Physicotechnical lnstitute at Leningrad, before several hundred musicians, composers, scientists and music lovers. His instrument, which was described in our issue of October 1, produces what he calls "ether-wave music" and he asserts that it opens up an entirely new field in composition. Narrates Mr. Kaempffert:

"Upon a talble stood a box three and a half feet wide, two feet deep, and three feet high. A short brass rod projected up from the top at the right side and a brass ring about eight inches in diameter from the left side.
"The young Russian professor did not touch the instrument. Assuming a slightly affected posture, he merely gestured in space. Out of a loud-speaker of the familiar radio type came the familiar strains of the Scriabine Etude, played apparently by a violin of extraordinary beauty and fulness of tone. As Professor Theremin raised or lowrered his left hand over the ring he swelled the tone or reduced it to a barely audible pianissimo. As he shook his right hand he obtained the vibrato of the violin.
"Professor Theremin's instrument may be regarded as a modified radio transmitter. A radio engineer would say it consisted of two transmitters, a rectifier and an amplifier. Yet it is much more than an ordinary transmitter.
"‘With this instrument,’ Professor Theremin told the New York Times representative, ‘I have made it possible to produce tones of constancy of pitch not even remotely approached by the best piano or organ.’
"Every broadcasting enthusiast has heard high musical notes or whistles as he turned his set to some station. This is a familiar heterodyne effect of which the builders of sets at home speak so learnedly .
"The effect is easily explained. We do not hear radio waves because they inundate us at the rate of millions in a second. The human ear can respond to vibrations of only thousands and hundreds a second. In fact, 20,000 vibrations a second is about the upper limity of audibility.
"If in a radio set we ‘heterodyne’ - in other words superimpose - two trains of electrical waves of slightly different frequencies, we will hear them whenever they are in step, or ‘phase,’ as an engineer would say.
"Thus one train may be composed of waves produced with a frequency of 1,000,000 and another of waves produced with a frequency of 990,000 a second. When these two waves are superimposed they will be in step ten thousands times a second. What is called a ‘beat’ note is heard."
Thus, we are told, Professor Theremin creates music by juggling electrical waves. But how does he vary the pitch and the volume of his electrically produced tones? Mr. Kaempffert goes on:
"A phenomenon every amateur has observed in poor radio sets is the extraordinary effect of the body. Bring a hand near the tuning knob and squeals and whistles are heard that sigh up and down the scale.
"The human body has what is called electrostatic capacity, and so has every part of a set. By moving the hand to or from the set the capacity of the circuit is changed so that the set is no longer in tune.
"Hence when Professor Theremin brings his right hand toward his short vertical antenna, he produces a higher note. Similarly, when he raises or lowers his left hand over the ring antenna, he varies the volume.
"Thus it seemed to his mystified audience that he created music out of nothing but motions in the air. He had but to twiddle his little finger to vary the picth and amplitude.
"By combining electric wawes in different ways, Professor Theremin can generate tones to order. String, wind, and brass instruments are mimicked with absolute fidelity. But Professor Theremin has aspirations that extend far beyond mere imitation. This young Russian physicist produces effects unobtainable hitherto.
"‘My apparatus,’ he said, ‘frees the composer from the despotism of the twelve-note tempered piano scale, to which even violinists must adapt themselves. The composer can now construct a scale of the intervals desired. He can have intervals of thirteenths, if he wants them. In fact any gradation detectable by the human ear can be produced. To this must be added an entirely new range of tonal colors. Hitherto the composer has had only about twenty tone colors, represented by as many different types of orchestral instruments. I give him literally thousands of tone colors.
"‘In order to demonstrate the possibilities of ether-wave music, I am now building twelve instruments. Good musicians will learn how to play them in a fortnight. With an orchestra thus constituted with nothing but gestures these men will give us concerts that will reveal new beauties in tones naf their combinations. Apart from these possibilities, ether wave music is created with a simplicity and a directness matched only by singing. There is no keyboard to obtrude itself, no catgut, no bow, no pedal, nothing but simple expressive gestures of the hands.’"

[Literary Digest, October 29, 1927]


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