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The Latest Marvel in Music

This article appeared in the Literary Digest, p. 30, on October 1, 1927. It describes the lecture-recital that Léon Theremin presented at the international exposition in Frankfurt, “Musik im Leben der Völker” (Music in the Life of the People) on August 4, 1927 (see Albert Glinsky, Theremin. Ether Music and Espionage, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2000, 51).

MUSIC WITHOUT AN INSTRUMENT, music plucked from the air by the bare human hand, is the newest wonder of radio science. “The music of the spheres,” some one has called it, and it was first heard at Frankfort, Germany, on August 4, by a deeply interested audience gathered at the exposition whose official name is Music in the Life of the People. This remarkable invention – or perhaps discovery is the better word – achieved a successful performance of classical music, including works of Greig and others, entirely without musical instruments. The music, we are told, was literally plucked from the air. The event was reported in Reclam’s Universum, of Leipzig, by Dr. Rudolph Frank, who expresses enthusiasm for the new and amazing art, and regards it as marking an epoch in musical progress. His description of what the Frankfort audience saw and heard is as follows:

“From a small mahogany box, which serves likewise as a music-stand, there rises vertically a metal rod about 40 centimeters long (15½ inches), while at the left there extends another rod bent into the form of a ring. On the floor is a dry-cell battery, and in the background is a loud-speaker. Box, battery, and loud-speaker are connected by wires.
“A young man, the typical engineer, takes his place in front of this unpretentious desk. It is Leo Theremin, presenting for the first time before an audience his invention of music, produced solely by the free movement of the hands in space. Slowly he lifts his hand, holding it a distance of about one meter (39 inches) from the upright metal rod. The movement produces a sound, the tone of which rises gradually until it reaches a pitch which no instrument, and far less the human voice, is capable of attaining.
“Now he raises his left hand gently above the ring-shaped rod, until it is at about the height of his head. As he does so the note sounded grows louder and louder. Then he lets his hand fall, as if to soothe the sound, and this grows softer until it dies out in the tenderest pianissimo.
“It is evident that we have here the essential conditions for the production of music – a variation in pitch on the one hand, and in intensity on the other. The sound, however, are more or less mechanical – soulless in character. The inventor himself points out that they lack the sympathetic quality which we call ‘heart.’ In short, they do not vibrate like the music invoked by the human throat and breath, or by the human hand from instruments of wood or metal.”

Yet the human hand, subtlest instrument of the soul, we are told, has gone on to perfect this miracle, and the Frankfort audience listened spellbound as the inventor proceeded to transform the electrical currents surrounding the two antennæ – the rod and ring – into an exact expression of his own emotions. Dr. Frank continues with his narrative:

“Incredulous we gaze upon the young engineer. His looks grow tender. The inventor becomes the musician. The fingers of his right hand vibrate like those of a violinist when he presses the strings. They vibrate in the free air, and a marvelously sweet tone sweeps through the room. Invisibly a soul sings, and we listen, thrilled.
“Now it sounds deep as an organ note, and now like a perfect viola, or a violin from the hand of one of the old master-crafts-men. Again it resembles a flute or a hunstman’s horn. Whole notes, halves, quarters, yes, even eighth notes are thus drawn from the electric field around the antennæ, we are assured, merely by the motions of the bare hands. There is no discord perceptible, even when this marvelous and mysterious music is accompanied by a performer upon the grand piano. The works of such composers as Grieg, Saint-Saens, Scriabin, are played. It is marvelous, indeed, how remote the tones of the piano sound in comparison with the vital fulness and resonant force of those which flow from the mysterious electrical currents under the hands of Theremin.
“As if these marvels were not enough, Theremin begins to repeat the piece. But what is this? The tones no longer come from the same place as before. We turn our heads: the sounds come to us like an echo – from behind us, from the highest, farthest corner of the room!
“Now another young man takes his place in front of a second box, smaller than the first. These two technical musicians – tone engineers, let us call them – perform, merely by the raising and dropping and bending of their gently vibrating fingers, music which resounds through the great room in pure and perfect tones.”

But what is the secret or this modern miracle? Dr. Frank replies that the explanations offered give our minds certain definite points or support, yet fail to make the marvel entirely clear. He continues:

“We learn that there are alternating currents of varying frequencies, which are conducted from the human body over the apparatus, tho they are entirely independent of the body. The approach of the hands affects the frequency or the alternating currents which surround the antennæ. The nearer the finger comes to the vertical rod, the higher the note produced. The further the hand from the ring-shaped antenna, the louder the sound. By these means are obtained every possibility of musical expression. The tone follows, in the minutest particular, the vibration of the fingers, the rhythm of the blood.
“If one were to increase the strength of the current, even to two kilowatts only, a truly disturbing effect would be produced by the transformed current. The echo, whose amazed ear-witness I was, is formed merely by the reversal of the current.
“I firmly believe that in later times, when the present invention is perfected and elaborated, we shall refer to the performance merely as music, pure and simple. Then it will be recalled that it was first presented to the world on August 4, 1927, at the notable exposition in Frankfort called Music in the Life of the People.”

[Literary Digest, October 1, 1927] 

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