2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the Theremin. It was way back in 1920 that Lev Sergeyevich Termen, better known as Leon Theremin in the west, first demonstrated one of the most important electronic musical instruments ever. At this point it’s sound is probably most closely associated with ‘50s sci-fi films and the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”. (Fun fact: the instrument heard on “Good Vibrations” isn’t actually a Theremin, but an Electro-Theremin. The two sound similar, but the latter is actually controlled by a slider on a string.)
But back then it was at the vanguard of experimental and avant-garde music. It also had a different name: the Etherphone. Eventually it became known as the Termenvox, then (when RCA acquired the right to build commercial versions) the Thereminvox, before eventually being shortened to just “Theremin.”
The company most closely associated with the Theremin here in America is definitely Moog. Founder Robert Moog cut his teeth by building his own Theremin, and kick started his company by selling DIY Theremin kits. The instrument is very much ingrained in the DNA of Moog. So, it makes sense that the company would want to celebrate that legacy.
The Claravox Centennial attempts to pay tribute to the Theremin’s origins, while also bringing it headlong into the present. There are two completely separate sound engines inside: one built around traditional heterodyne oscillators -- just like the original. The other, is a digital oscillator with four selectable modes: sine, triangle, saw and wavetable. And an on-board analog BBD (bucket brigade) delay adds warmth and depth.
The Claravox Centennial even plays nice with other instruments, both new and old. There’s practically every connectivity option you could think onboard. There’s five-pin MIDI DIN, USB, plus CV in and outs for controlling modular gear.
A traditional Theremin is also notoriously difficult to play, and even harder to master. After all, you play it by waving your hands in the air. There’s no physical point of reference for you to feel like the frets of a guitar or the keys of a piano. So, while you can play the Claravox the old fashioned way, there are deep controls for pitch quantization and even scale quantization so that even beginners can stay in tune.
Of course, at $1,499 the Claravox is not priced for beginners. In addition to the high-end electronics inside, this thing is made from some high grade materials on the outside too. The cabinet is made of solid walnut and the antennae are brass.
This is a statement piece -- A limited edition tribute to the origins of electronic music, but also to Clara Rockmore, one of the most skilled and famous thereminists to ever live. She also had a profound influence on the evolution of the instrument through her close relationship with Leon Theremin.
While others leaned into the Theremin’s strange and creepy qualities, Rockmore crafted beautiful music and played classical compositions. Her efforts helped elevate it from technological curiosity to serious musical instrument. She even played alongside world-renowned orchestras that forced critics to take the Theremin and experimental electronic music seriously.
The Claravox Centennial is available to preorder now for $1,499 and is expected to ship in December. But, even if you don’t plan on buying one, it’s worth diving into the history of the Theremin, Leon Theremin himself and Clara Rockmore. (I highly recommend the documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, if you can find it.) There’s espionage, a possible kidnapping by the KGB and, of course, without the Theremin, there may never have been a Moog synthesizer. And electronic music just wouldn’t be the same.
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