The theremin is one of the most unique instruments, both for the way it is played and also for its otherworldly sound. A favorite of movies, the theremin has been featured in multiple soundtracks throughout the past half-century, which has boosted its recognition and appeals to a mass audience.
The theremin is perhaps the only instrument played without physical contact (though the performer does use their body to control the sound)! Though the theremin has only been around since the 1920s, its rise in popularity due to developing entertainment media gave way to several theremin virtuosos.
1. Leon Theremin
Leon Theremin, the inventor of the theremin should rightly be the first player on our list.
This Russian inventor worked in television, so it’s only natural that that’s where the theremin instrument found its biggest popularity.
First called the aetherphone, Theremin conceptualized his new invention as the first ever, purely electronic instrument.
When the instrumentalist stands in between two frequencies, they can control the volume and pitch according to how they position their arms and hands, giving their “performance” the look of an elaborate dance.
Leon Theremin first demonstrated his new instrument in Russia—even performing for Lenin—before traveling with it to the U.S.
He performed with the New York Philharmonic and saw his invention become patented, before being kidnapped by the KGB and returning to Russia.
2. Carolina Eyck
A German musician, Carolina Eyck is recognized internationally as a theremin virtuoso, vocalist, and composer.
She regularly performs works from the classical, contemporary, and pop genres.
Considered a child prodigy, Ms. Eyck showed an early aptitude for general music and quickly became sought after for her masterful understanding of the theremin.
She studied in-depth to become the world’s leading expert on her instrument and wrote the first textbook on the theremin’s history and usage.
Ms. Eyck is currently based in Berlin but offers instruction and masterclasses online.
3. Clara Rockmore
Many string players made the transition to the theremin due to its similarities of pitch.
As the performer deals with open-air rather than frets or other means of dividing pitches from each other, the infinite spectrum of notes more closely resembles the fingerboard of a stringed instrument.
This was certainly the case for Lithuanian violinist Clara Rockmore grew up as a child prodigy at her instrument.
She often performed alongside her sister, pianist Nadia Reisenberg.
Rockmore was a student of Leon Theremin himself and became widely known as the world’s foremost theremin virtuoso in her time.
Rockmore once rejected a marriage proposal from Theremin, but they remained in close contact, even working together to custom-build Rockmore her own theremin to her size and aesthetic specifications.
4. Armen Ra
The Iranian-Armenian theremin virtuoso Armen Ra is a consummate stage artist, also known as a director and production designer as well as one of the great therimin players
His debut recording, Plays the Theremin (2010), features many traditional Armenian songs.
Ra worked as a model and makeup artist before becoming an androgynous theremin performer icon.
In 2020, NPR interviewed Ra to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the theremin’s invention.
He has collaborated with modern pop artists such as Selena Gomez and Gwen Stefani and is self-taught on the theremin.
5. Natasha Theremin
Daughter of inventor Leon Theremin, Natasha spent much time in the 1970s and 1980s helping her father demonstrate his beloved instrument.
Together they presented in various Russian and European locations, co-organized an international theremin festival, and participated in multiple documentaries on the theremin.
Natasha often speaks of her father’s love for and cultivation of music in their childhood home.
She quotes him as describing the “masterful possession of theremin art” as “the possibilities [for the theremin] to take an equal place among the classical acoustic instruments.”
Currently, Ms. Theremin is the curator of the Russian Theremin School and chairperson of the St. Petersburg Theremin Society.
6. Bruce Woolley
English singer, songwriter, record producer and Co-founder of the Radio Science Orchestra, Bruce Woolley is most famous for his help penning the famous pop song “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
But, as well as writing pop songs, Woolley has been active in electronic music since the 1970s, frequently collaborating with artists such as Thomas Dolby.
Besides being an expert thereminist, he is also a guitarist and vocalist.
His creativity extends into the genres of pop, new-wave, space-age, ambient, and jazz.
7. Barbara Buchholz
Another multi-instrumentalist, Barbara Buchholz was a respected musician, theater performer, and composer.
Originally from Germany and making her home in Berlin throughout much of her active career, Buchholtz studied the theremin in Moscow before striking out on her own path.
She is famous for going beyond the traditional methods of playing the theremin, incorporating ideas such as theremin music and dance, and using instruments such as the Thereminvox and MIDI theremin.
Before her death from cancer, Buchholz made waves in the music, theater, and experimental communities as a truly imaginative artist and performer.
8. Peter Pringle
Like many thereminists on our list, Peter Pringle was most active in the 1970s and 1980s, during classical music’s digital revolution.
He spent some time in Los Angeles, but the bulk of his work has taken place in Canada, where he hails from.
In the 1990s, Pringle ventured into the world of television, hosting the Miss Teen Canada pageant and performing other odd jobs in entertainment.
He attempted to retire from music in 1996 after recording a theremin album but returned to the instrument only two years later.
His discography, an impressive 16-entry collection, includes music in both English and French, his most recent being an album recorded in 2021 called Dancing Alone.
9. Lydia Kavina
A distant cousin of Leon Theremin, Lydia Kavina, a native of Moscow but currently living in the UK, began theremin studies with the instrument’s inventor at the age of nine years old, when he was in his eighties.
She is an active promoter of the theremin, regularly appearing at music festivals, presentations, and conferences to tout its merits.
She teaches workshops in England and Germany and often collaborates with other theremin contemporaries such as Barbara Buchholz.
Aside from her performing, Ms. Kavina is also a composer and serious educator of her instrument, and of electronic music in general.
10. Gabby La La
Whimsical and imaginative, performer Gabby La La takes the theremin to new levels of creativity.
Her YouTube channel sparks inspiration and education about many instruments—such as sitar, ukulele, and accordion along with the theremin—within a colorful aesthetic of video entertainment.
Born Gabriel Lang in California, she describes her own music as “fun, unique, crazy kooky.”
She sometimes covers pop or festive tunes but more often engages her audiences in original music, including improvisations on one or more instruments.
Gabby La La is currently signed to Prawn Song Records, where she has put out three solo albums.
11. Eugene Mirman
Stand-up comedian Eugene Mirman is famous for his self-deprecating humor and observations on American life. He extended his career into television when he voiced Gene Belcher on Bob’s Burgers.
Though Mirman is primarily a comedian and actor, he often incorporates the theremin into his sets.
He usually uses it as a humorous tool for sound effects rather than a musical instrument.
His track, “Jokes with a Theremin!” is available as part of his comedy special, An Evening of Comedy in a Fake Underground Laboratory.
Born in Russia, Mirman now bases his life and career in Massachusetts.
12. Katica Illenyi
Classically-trained Katica Illenyi is part of a musical family, where she was raised to be proficient at the violin and vocals.
She incorporates several musical genres into her performance, such as klezmer, traditional Hungarian folk tunes, and Manouche jazz.
Because the instrument is not well-known in her native Hungary,. Illenyi makes it part of her mission to introduce it to the country as often and as in-depth as possible.
She finds her interest overlapping with the voice and violin due to the technique of all three being so similar.
Ms. Illenyi currently enjoys an active touring schedule in Europe, and in 2016 put out a theremin Christmas album.
13. Thorwald Jorgensen
Dutch virtuoso Thorwald Jorgensen is one of the leading thereminists in the world today. He has performed as a soloist, chamber musician, and orchestral musician on five continents.
A self-proclaimed ambassador for the theremin and its place in contemporary music, Jorgensen regularly premieres theremin pieces written for him.
He is also a respected interpreter of traditional classical music on the theremin, such as Rachmaninoff’s famous “Vocalise.”
Jorgensen’s latest release, Air electrique, features original compositions for the theremin and piano.
Summing up our List of the Greatist Thereminists
The theremin deserves recognition in the art world for its massive creative contributions, not just in the field of music but also electronics, visual art, and dance.
Once you get hooked on the theremin’s unique sound and begin to research the people who brought it to the limelight, you’ll quickly realize that many thereminists are just as quirky and colorful as their instrument of choice.
The voice of the digital age is now a mainstay on concert stages everywhere!