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Playing Theremin’s multi-tone instrument at the Theremin Center Moscow in 1996

Ray Lee playing Theremin's multi-tone instrument. Photo: Harry Dawes
Ray Lee playing Theremin's multi-tone instrument. Photo: Harry Dawes

The inspiration for the electronic sound I used in my work Siren came about as the result of coming across a curious and little-known instrument built by Theremin in the 1960s.

During a trip to Moscow in 1996 with my friend and colleague Harry Dawes (we’d been invited to perform our Theremin duo at the centenary conference celebrating Leon Theremin’s birth) we found a rather sad looking and dusty electronic instrument in the corner of the Theremin Center. Evidently, he had built it in order to teach students about different musical temperaments. Although, as far as I could gather, the instrument didn’t have a name as such, I call it the multi-tone generator (see Harry's photo, and my drawing which I made much later from memory…).

Above a two and a half octave keyboard was a bank of twenty-five dials which enabled twenty five separate electronic oscillators to be individually tuned and send the signals to a panel of twenty-five separate loudspeakers set above the dials. Different scales and temperaments could be manually tuned into the keyboard and each discrete note heard through a separate loudspeaker so that there was no interference between the different beats produced except in the listener’s ears.

I loved the direct simplicity of being able to very easily set the pitch of each note of an electronic keyboard. I’m sure there are even simpler ways of doing this now, but in the 60’s and even in the 90’s when I came across this it was not straightforward.

The idea that this sparked in me was that instead of having them as part of a keyboard I could use them spatially and each note could be produced on a different device, in this case as part of the sound generation for Siren with its 56 individually tuneable oscillators housed on the 28 rotating arms of the sculptures.


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