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Get a close encounter with a theremin at the Buena Vista Library

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Theremin musician Ed Sussman will be at the Buena Vista Branch Library in Burbank on June 29 to talk about the instrument and its role in electronic music.
(Courtesy of Ed Sussman)

Those who have always been curious about the theremin — a futuristic-looking instrument known for its haunting, sci-fi tones and used in classic films from the 1940s and ’50s such as “The Thing from Another World” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still” — will have a chance to learn more about it during an upcoming event in Burbank.

Theremin musician Ed Sussman will give an overview of the instrument’s history and how it came to be, as well as perform several songs using vintage and modern versions of the device at 2 p.m. on June 29 in the Buena Vista Branch Library, 300 N. Buena Vista St.

The theremin was invented by Russian inventor Leon Theremin in 1920 and is considered to be the precursor to electronic instruments played today, Sussman said.

“It’s been said that Leon Theremin and his device are like what the Wright Brothers are to aviation,” Sussman said. “It introduced a whole new world of music that was made through an electronic device.”

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He said the instrument is played by manipulating the electromagnetic waves emitted by two antennae — a horizontally mounted, looped antenna that controls volume and a straight, vertically mounted antenna that controls pitch — with nothing but the musician’s hands hovering nearby.

“Theremin discovered while making this device that there was electricity in our bodies — capacitance, the ability to store electricity within our bodies,” Sussman said.

“The theremin, being a transmitting device, its [electronic] field gets interrupted by the electrons in our body that we emit,” he added.

While any person can approach a theremin and start waving their hands to make random sounds, Sussman said not many people have dedicated the time to master the instrument.

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Sussman, a prop and effects designer in the movie industry, has spent almost 20 years learning and perfecting how to play the theremin, which requires precise hand movements to hit the right pitches.

Although he had some musical background, having played the violin for several years, Sussman said he learned mainly through watching videos of other theremin musicians playing the instrument.

“It’s not easy, and there’s a lot of trial and error,” Sussman said. “Ultimately, you need love and passion for the possibility of sound being made by a theremin.”

While there are few theremin players, Sussman said the instrument has stood the test of time due to its popularity in music and film.

Also, the sound was more widely recognized by average music listeners after the Beach Boys released their 1966 song “Good Vibrations.”

The group was inspired by the theremin, but used another electronic device to replicate its sound.

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