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Ladies and Gentlemen, Leon Theremin and his Symphony of the Air

March 18, 2010

I just watched Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, a poorly-edited yet engrossing documentary about Leon Theremin, inventor of the world’s first synthesizer and the only musical instrument played without touch, the Theremin.

The Theremin is played by disrupting two electromagnetic fields. The right-hand controls pitch while the left-hand controls volume. The Theremin’s distinctive tremulous sound seems to come from rapid back-and-forth movements of the right hand accompanied by what looks like sign language, as even the shape of the fist affects the sound produced.

I had neither heard of nor seen the Theremin before, which is surprising because the way you play this instrument is so novel – even ninety years later – that I’d think every children’s science museum would be filled with them. Despite its lack of name recognition, the Theremin’s sound is instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever watched a black-and-white sci fi or horror movie. But we’ll get to that.

Theremin was a Soviet citizen, and two things have to be understood about the Soviet Union in the 1920s to appreciate the seeming import of the Theremin. Good Marxists that they were, the Soviets saw themselves not just as socio-economic pioneers, but pioneers in everything. By overthrowing the economy – the substratum of society – everything else necessarily changed. As Anatoly Lunacharsky, the People’s Commissar fro Education, explained to Sergei Prokofiev: “You are a revolutionary in music, we are revolutionaries in life.” The Soviets were creating a new world order, a new Soviet man, and a new Soviet art.

Secondly, electricity still inspired wonderment for the citizens of the Soviet Union. In February 1913, Saint Petersburg celebrated 300 years of Romanov rule by stringing colored lights across the city, in what was intended to be a spectacle to end all spectacles. Electricity spoke of the power of the czar to those peasants visiting from the countryside.

In 1921, Lenin decided to bring electricity to the masses. He declared that there would be an “Electrification Campaign” for the countryside. In a famous formulation, Lenin stated that “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.”

So along comes Theremin, a New Man in a New World Order composing New Music on an electronic New Instrument. Theremin and those around him no doubt thought that this instrument would change Western music as much as the invention of the piano. The Soviet Union was so eager to show off their revolutionary inventor that they sent him on a tour of the West in 1928. Having left the Soviet Union, Theremin decided to stay out.

Theremin moved to New York, where he was the toast of the town. He conducted Theremin concerts at Carnegie Hall, with an ensemble led by the talented, beautiful Clara Rockmore. Theremin befriended Albert Einstein. He began inventing new instruments, like the stringless cello. He also pioneered the use of motion-detection in alarm systems.

What happens next is fuzzy. In 1938 he abruptly left the United States. It’s not clear whether he was kidnapped by Soviet agents, upset that their inventor’s fame was accruing to the capitalists, or if he left for financial reasons. In any case, Theremin wasn’t heard from for a decade and his friends in America simply assumed he was dead. Actually, he was put to work as slave labor in Soviet prison camps and gold mines.

Over a decade later, he was released and rehabilitated. His genius was diverted from music to espionage: Theremin invented an eavesdropping device that could decode sound from the vibrations of glass windowpanes. He also created a listening device that was disguised as a wooden replica of the seal of the United States. This bug was gifted to the U.S. Ambassador by a group of Soviet school children.

Theremin quit working for the KGB in 1966, and entered the Moscow Conservatory of Music. By this time, however, electricity was no longer novel. In a scene that was repeated countless times during the history of the Soviet Union, someone who was praised by the state one day, found himself the next day being denounced by the state. The Managing Director of the conservatory declared: “Electricity is not good for music; electricity is to be used for electrocution.” Electronic music was banned, and Theremin was kicked out of the Conservatory and more or less fell into obscurity.

The Theremin never quite caught on in the United States either. Its sound is instantly recognizable, but so associated with a time and genre (corny 1950s sci fi and horror films) that few composers choose to use it after the novelty wore off. (One notable exception is the Beach Boy’s Good Vibrations.) Moreover, Theremin’s invention inspired others to push synthesizers in new directions.

The documentary interviews Theremin right after the fall of the Soviet Union. Then in his early 90s, Theremin lives in a cramped apartment, largely forgotten. The documentary makers take him to New York City for a reunion with a still glamourous, but just as forgotten, Clara Rockmore. The whole journey is poignant, a feeling underscored by the accompaniment of a solo Theremin. The movie ends as we watch confused New Yorkers stare at the former New Man of music as he aimlessly roam the streets of a city in which he had once been famous.

I found the movie satisfying, despite its narrative flaws. In particular, the story struck me as sufficiently Russian. The paragon of Western literature might be Hamlet, a story in which personal flaws and virtues determine the fates of the characters. But Russian literature has always been more like War and Peace. Individual traits are swamped by the World Historical Events surrounding the characters. Never was this fatalism more true than for the generation of Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, Poles, Kalmyks, etc. who were caught up in the October Revolution, the Russian Civil War, the Great Patriotic War, and the Stalinist Purges. Theremin could have had it all, but history decreed that he wouldn’t.


This video of Clara Rockmore playing “Hebrew Melody” shows how one plays the Theremin:

And apparently the documentary sparked a resurgence in interest in the Theremin. In this video, a guy covers Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy on a Theremin:


From → Culture

  1. holly permalink

    True story. So one day in college, ex and I were less than soberish, and watched this same documentary. This lead us on a four-week-long goose chase to find one, only to find that our own music department had one. We asked if we could play it, and they said no. It’s an antique.

    It was a sad story.

  2. Do you have $80 to spare?

    I am seriously tempted to buy it. But this is the kind of thing I should wait a month, and then reassess if I still desperately want a Theremin.

  3. holly permalink

    I feel like this is one of those things if you asked Ben Snyder to build it, it will come.

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