The Spirit of Sound

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Local musician Alleen Adler showcases one of her theremins outside the Fine Arts library Monday. The theremin uses electromagnetic waves given off by the human body to create its unique sound.

Photo Credit: Lawrence Peart | Daily Texan Staff

Nothing screams Halloween quite like a theremin — that is, the musical instrument used to create spooky sounds in early Hollywood blockbusters such as “Spellbound” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

Resembling a stationary radio, a theremin has two protruding antennas that create electromagnetic fields. Moving your hands in a controlled, precise manner over the device creates song-like sounds.

UT’s Fine Arts Library rang in the holiday with Theremin Mania, a celebration of the instrument complete with a documentary film and musical demonstrations.

The celebration began with a film, “Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey,” that portrays the life of Russian inventor and musician Leon Theremin and the story of his creation of the unique instrument that produces sound solely using body movements. Through his invention, Theremin met everyone from Vladimir Lenin to Albert Einstein.

Theremin’s life took a tumultuous turn when he was kidnapped by the Soviet secret police, who sought to use his brilliance to develop technological warfare. During his seven years in prison, Theremin helped develop spy technology for Soviet intelligence.

The theremin, named after its inventor, was featured in horror movies and in many different genres of music, including the Beach Boys hit “Good Vibrations.”

Local theremin musician Aileen Adler brought her modern, solid-state version of the instrument and explained how it radiates an electromagnetic field that is affected by the human body’s natural electromagnetic charge. There are two varying high frequencies, she said, and the difference between them creates a third audible frequency, the one we hear.

Adler said her roommate initially introduced her to the instrument and after seeing a video of a famous theremin musician, she was enthralled by it and inspired to learn to play.

“When I learned about the theremin, there wasn’t much known about it. I taught myself the hard way by ruining one of my good amps,” she said, laughing.

Still, Adler said she’s had a wonderful experience with the instrument and has had many opportunities to play with bands of all different genres. She also said the theremin has a wide appeal and goes beyond the horror movies it was initially used in.

Students and other passers-by were encouraged to test out the instrument themselves, with the help of Adler’s expert instructions.

“I’ve heard it before, but I’ve never seen one in person,” said psychology sophomore Adiel Aizenberg. “It comes up in an episode of ‘The Simpsons’ — I think it’s an interesting instrument.”

Adler spent a large amount of time producing her own CD, Theremin for the Masses, and said she hopes the CD will spread the popularity of the instrument to those who don’t know much about it.

“I want to use the CD to bring the theremin back as an instrument,” she said. “A lot of people see it as just a tool for sci-fi movies. I feel it hasn’t had due justice as a musical instrument.”