Andrej Smirnov
Dancing in Tune

Terpsitone: Clara Rockmore performing on the terpsitoneThe terpsitone is one of the most unusual embodiments of the theremin1. Instead of the classical rod antenna for the hand it utilizes a big antenna platform for the dancer! There is an insulated metal plate beneath the surface of the platform. As the dancer bends towards it, the electrical capacity is increased, and thereby the pitch of an oscillating tube circuit is lowered; as the dancer rises on tiptoe, for instance, the pitch of the oscillator is increased. Thus the motions of the dancer are converted into tones that vary in exact synchronism with his or her pose. In fact, the motion of either an arm or a leg is sufficient to produce a noticeable change of tone.

Despite of the conceptual beauty no dancers could really “dance in tune” and play this instrument, since the natures of musical hearing and artistic movement are completely different. The first known platform was built by Lew Termen in the early 1930s and demonstrated in the spring of 1932 at Carnegie Hall. To present the terpsitone he had to ask the theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore for help, since she had absolute pitch as well as a very flexible body.

Most likely Termen had got the idea for the terpsitone sometime in the mid-1920s. On the poster dated around 1924/25 he already proclaimed that he would demonstrate the connection between music and human gesture. In the 1930s there were several versions of the terpsitone with extended possibilities. Besides the pitch antenna there was a volume antenna built in a construction holding a loudspeaker behind the dancer so that he or she could control volume by changing the distance from the body to the volume antenna. Some terpsitones had a special tool to reproduce background music while the dancer was performing a solo part. Another feature was an automatic colored light accompaniment. The “visual note indicator” was a panel of lamps of different colors. This, Terpsitone: wiring diagram signed by the inventor, 1978however, was accomplished by a method partly mechanical: a tuned reed behind each lamp vibrates when its corresponding note is sounded and thereby closes the circuit lighting its lamp. Thus the notes evoked by the artist’s motions were shown by lights flashing simultaneously up and down the panel; one for “A,” another one for “C,” and so on through the gamut.

In many articles the terpsitone was described as an unsuccessful, unfinished project. It is not really correct. There were several terpsitones built in the US and a group of dancers was working with them with big enough success: Lew Termen married one of them – Lavinia Williams.

In the USSR at the Moscow State Conservatory Termen built a terpsitone in the early 1960s which occupied a whole room (a small one) in the Acoustic Laboratory, where he was the head of a research group. As Harold Schonberg wrote in his well-known article, published in the New York Times newspaper in 1967: “He [Theremin] ushered the visitor into a room in which a small dance floor had been constructed. Mr. Theremin stood on the floor, raised his arms, made motions, and started to play the Massenet Elegy on nothing at all. The room was filled with sound, and it was positively spooky. No wires, no gadgets, nothing visible. Merely electromagnetic sorcery.”2

The last terpsitone was built by Termen in 1978 for Lydia Kavina and is now kept at the Theremin Center at the Moscow State Conservatory.


1 See Albert Glinsky, Theremin – Ether Music and Espionage, Urbana 2000.
2 New York Times, 26 April 1967.