Eyck, meanwhile, has created her own new playing technique, which she set out in her 2006 book The Art of Playing the Theremin. Other performers have brought individual methods to the theremin table too, such as Pamelia Kurstin’s “walking bass”.
Though the difficulty of playing his instrument stymied Theremin’s plans to earn a fortune, this remarkable man continued his inventive streak through the 1930s, from building early drum machines to creating new sensing instruments for US aircraft. But as the storm clouds of war gathered, Theremin was suddenly called back to Russia, spirited away by Soviet agents in September 1938.
According to his biographer Albert Glinsky, Theremin’s stay in the US had been encouraged by the Kremlin: ostensibly as a showcase of Soviet technology, but in fact to allow him to engage in industrial espionage.
Arriving home, rather than being feted as a genius, Theremin became a victim of Stalin’s political purges. Banished to a special prison for scientists in Siberia, his creations included one of the Cold War’s most famous bugging devices, seen as a precursor to radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology. Nicknamed simply ‘The Thing’, one was hidden in a wooden plaque that hung in the office of the US ambassador to the Soviet Union for seven years until its discovery in 1952.
Released in 1947, Theremin continued to work for the state security system before developing electronic musical instruments at the Moscow Conservatory. He returned to the US on a visit in 1991, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, only then learning how his instrument had affected popular culture.
Though conceived as a concert hall instrument or home performance novelty, the theremin’s unique sound conjured bizarre, otherworldly sounds for a host of mystery, horror and science-fiction films throughout the 1940s and ‘50s. It became the go-to noise for an alien encounter, most famously in the classic 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still (scored by Bernard Herrmann). Other high-profile credits, alongside lots of B-Movies, include The Lost Weekend and the Biblical blockbuster The Ten Commandments.
Miklós Rózsa’s Oscar-winning score for the 1945 Alfred Hitchcock film Spellbound is another celebrated example of theremin atmospherics – and one that made a particular impact on Eyck. “I loved to watch it as a kid, and always got goosebumps when I heard the theremin play its part,” she reveals.
Magnúsdóttir is keen to highlight those who played on Hollywood soundtracks, as well as composers. “I love the playing by Samuel J Hoffman in The Day the Earth Stood Still. It just has such a presence.” She also picks out a more modern example of Lydia Kavina (Theremin’s grand-niece) on 2004’s The Machinist.