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'Amazing Grace' on Russian-nesting-doll theremins

Japan has scooped the Guinness World Record for the world's largest theremin ensemble, with 272 instruments shaped like matryoshka dolls.

Video screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET Australia

We really love the theremin. Its strange, synthetic, alien sound was miles ahead of its time. Invented in the 1920s by Russian Léon Theremin, well before digital synthesizers were born, it's the only musical instrument in the world that can be played without physical contact from the player.

It consists of two antennas attached to a device, inside of which a system of vacuum tubes, oscillators, coils, and wires creates an electromagnetic field around the antennas. When the player's hands enter this field, sound is produced, with one antenna controlling the pitch and the other controlling the volume.

Enter the Matryomin -- a one-handed theremin invented in 2003 by 46-year-old Japanese theremin player Masami Takeuchi. For some reason, he's packed it all inside a matryoshka doll. It still counts as a theremin, though, which means that when Takeuchi's company Mandarin Electron put together an ensemble of 272 Matryomin players (plus a conductor) on July 20, they managed to score a Guinness World Record for the world's largest theremin ensemble.

The ensemble played an arrangement of "Amazing Grace" for four parts for just over five minutes, beating... themselves. In April 2011, a 167-strong Matryomin ensemble played Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."

Neither of these pieces are the spooky, B-grade sci-fi fare one might expect from the instrument, but by all accounts, it is quite difficult to learn to play well, and Takeuchi prefers to showcase the players' finesse. "To simply make scary music, you don't need technical skill," he said. "What we seek is technique and musicality. All we care about is beautiful tone quality."

Skip to around the five-minute mark in the video below to hear the performance, and scroll down for a video of the 2011 performance of "Ode to Joy" (we have to admit, it's our favorite of the two).

(Source: Crave Australia)