By Maddie Orton
That spooky-sounding instrument synonymous with 1950s B movies got its start in early 20th century concert halls. Nearly 100 years later, thereminist Mano Divina (yes, that’s his given name), is bringing the instrument back to its roots. In a TCNJ concert hall, he peppers science and history lessons into his performance.
“It is just electricity trapped in the air. I had played nine instruments when I first saw the theremin and I thought it was a joke,” Divina said.
The instrument was invented in the 1920s by Russian physicist Leon Theremin. RCA manufactured only 500 units. They became more widely known for creating sound effects.
“When the instrument first appeared it was taken very seriously. People executed classical music on it. Decades later, generations later, no one knew how to play it, no one knew how to repair it, and what ended up happening was people started to use it for sound effects. When a UFO was landing or taking off, the ghost in the Scooby Doo castle. These were all sound effects. And nobody knew how to make music out of it, but they knew that right at that right moment a [sound effect] worked great in a science fiction movie,” Divina said.
Divina eventually dropped his nine other instruments and dedicated himself solely to the theremin.
The theremin is played by moving your hands around in two electromagnetic fields — one from the pitch antenna and one from the volume antenna.
As Divina says, it’s ‘literally pulling music out of thin air.’ To break that down a little further, he said, “A closed fist is the bottom of the octave, and then eight notes up is just eight smaller movements until I’m extended, and then I drop and go a little closer. If you look at it from the antenna: C, D, E, F, G, I go closer and closer until I get to the top of C again. When I’m at the top of C, I should be able to drop my hand back and be at the bottom of C.”
Divina isn’t nearly as serious in person as he appears onstage. He says there’s good reason for his poker-faced playing.
“Hear it go up? I inhale, it goes up a half-step. So every time I hit that high F for Mozart, I have to be in that same breathing pattern,” he said.
It’s an interactive, audible and visual science experiment. Not surprisingly, Samuel Mason, director of the Nikola Tesla Science Foundation, is a fan.
“As we’re moving into teaching about STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics — the theremin helps students of all ages to understand the power of bioelectricmagnetic fields,” Mason said.
Divina performs everything from classical music to rock with his Divine Hands orchestra in venues ranging from nightclubs and concert halls to science museums and even a cemetery.
“We’re trying to bring the theremin back to the public’s eye. That’s why we’ll do Mozart and do Black Sabbath. We’ll do Beethoven and do La Vie En Rose,” he said.
He says references to the instrument in shows like The Simpsons and Big Bang Theory help, and it might be the theremin’s time to shine. He says the piano took about 100 years to become a popular household instrument, so why not?