Short answer: They feature the theremin.
Yesterday, I came across this incredible collaboration between Gregoire Blanc and a glass harp-playing duo from Poland. I mostly associate the sound of the theremin with “Good Vibrations” and science fiction soundtracks – so it was refreshing to hear it in a different context. The two ethereal instruments in harmony perfectly fit into the whimsical world of Miyazaki…
The theremin is a unique instrument that can be controlled without physical contact. It was invented in 1920 by a Soviet physicist and cellist, Leon Theremin (aka Lev Termen), who was researching proximity sensors. It consists of a box with radio tubes producing two ultrasonic sound waves. One oscillator operates at a fixed frequency, and the other oscillator’s frequency varies based on the performer’s distance from the instrument. Together, these oscillators use the heterodyne principle to generate an audible signal. Pitch is controlled by moving one’s hand away from an antenna on the right of the box, while the amplitude is controlled by a loop (the pitch circuit). Harmonics can also be filtered out to generate a variety of tones.
After inventing the theremin, Termen was sent on a world tour by Vladimir Lenin to share the modern Soviet sound (and to spy on Western countries). Theremin then patented his invention in 1928 and granted commercial production rights to RCA. Although not a commercial success due to the Great Depression, the theremin did fascinate audiences in both American and abroad. Clara Rockmore, an early virtuoso of the theremin, helped to further popularize the instrument. In addition, Rockmore worked with Theremin to improve the instrument; changes included increased sensitivity to allow for rapid staccato, increasing the range, and aesthetic changes to make the performer more visible.
The theremin’s breakthrough in film scores came with the works of Miklos Rozsa, a Hungarian composer. Rozsa first pioneered the use of the theremin with Hitchock’s Spellbound. Perhaps the greatest effect was with The Lost Weekend, a poignant tragedy about a writer, Don Birnam, struggling with alcoholism. Initially scored to a jazzy soundtrack, test audiences assumed the film was a comedy. Rozsa’s score changed this perception, with its tense, jarring score reinforcing Don’s anxiety and desperation.
Later on, the theremin became associated with science fiction movies of the 1950s. In one of the most famous examples, Bernard Hermann worked with thereminist Samuel Hoffman to create the menacing soundtrack to The Day the Earth Stood Still. The typecasting of the theremin as “flying saucer sound” (along with the rise of the synthesizer) probably lead to its decline. However, it can still be heard in a variety of more modern soundtracks including Frank and Loki (on Disney+).
As an aside, the opening of the Ghostbusters soundtrack does not actually feature the theremin. Instead, Elmer Bernstein used the ondes Martenot (musical waves), an electronic instrument played with a keyboard and a ribbon. It was patented the same year as the theremin and appears like a cross between an organ and a theremin. This allowed more accuracy, as well as preset timbres. In addition, the groundbreaking Moog synthesizer was also invented by theremin enthusiast Robert Moog.
If you’re looking for some more beautiful theremin music, Mr. Blanc playing the main theme of “Schindler’s List” is a must-listen. In my opinion, it is almost comparable in emotional depth to even Itzhak Perelman’s rendition.
- Who sang “Good Vibrations”?
- Who directed The Lost Weekend?
- How many Oscars did Miklos Rozsa win?
- Which director is Bernard Hermann best known for collaborating with?
- Who composed the soundtrack to Schindler’s List?
- The Beach Boys
- Billy Wilder
- Three. For Spellbound (1945), A Double Life (1947), and Ben-Hur (1959).
- Alfred Hitchcock (including Vertigo, Psycho, and North by Northwest).
- John Williams