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Theremin

Albert Glinsky

Ether Music and Espionage

(University of Illinois Press)

To most Americans, the name of Leon Theremin brings to mind the musical instrument bearing his name. To his native Russia, though, Lev Sergeyevich Termen was literally a character who spanned the history of the Soviet Union, from the original Bolshevik Revolution to the collapse of the USSR. In the process, Termen managed to influence innumerable lives both famous and obscure, influencing history without being a focus for it.


Termen originally started life as mathematics prodigy and rapidly found himself drawn into the fledgling field of electronics. While working on early television systems, Termen came across the basic principle for one of the first electronic musical instruments. The theremin (Termen first gave it the name “etherophone”) effectively produced music with modulated static: theremins had no moving parts and no parts to be played as in standard instruments. Instead, a theremin player used two antennae, one for pitch and one for volume, and waved his or her hands in the air near the antennae to produce musical tones. In the cases of skilled musicians, the theremin could be used as an analog for any number of existing instruments, but it also promised to be a wonderful opportunity for nonmusicians to play a whole new instrument without any of the preconceptions fostered by strings or valves.


Partly because Lenin himself was duly impressed by Termen’s dedication to the socialist cause, and partly because the theremin was a perfect propaganda tool for showing the superiority of Soviet technology, Termen left Russia to travel from Germany to England to the United States. The official excuse for Termen’s tour was to demonstrate the wonders of the theremin, but he was also under strict orders to collect any and all information on German and US technology and manufacturing and relay them back to the USSR. While following both of these goals, Termen managed to get a contract with RCA to mass-produce theremins for the home user just as the 1929 stock market crash hit.


At this point, the parallels between the theremin and the Internet-ready computer are glaringly obvious. Overenthusiastic reporters relayed articles that misstated the theremin’s abilities (one such newspaper article made the theremin out as an automatic jukebox that could play any number of songs with the wave of a hand in its general direction), and the “ready-for-the-home” RCA theremins still required tuning from individuals with basic electronics skills, leaving most buyers dissatisfied. Due to ongoing financial difficulties, RCA stopped production. Termen remained in the US on a much-updated work visa until 1938, when he succumbed to homesickness and returned to Russia.


Until recently, most non-Russians only knew that Termen had disappeared in the middle of the night, and grisly stories of his kidnapping by Soviet agents were relayed for years. His invention, while not the breakthrough success he had hoped for, retained its popularity for years, not only influencing future electronic musicians and designers such as Robert Moog (inventor of the Moog synthesizer), but helping to create such diverse sounds as the unearthly soundtrack for the film “The Day The Earth Stood Still” and the cheery whistle in the Beach Boys’ single “Good Vibrations.” The true fate of the man, though, really only became available under the glasnost reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s.


Termen had the incredible bad luck to come back to Russia during the Stalinist purges, where millions of people were summarily interrogated, forced to implicate dozens of others, and either shipped to prison camps or shot on the spot. Having spent years in America, he immediately became a suspect of counterrevolutionary thoughts or actions, and was shipped off to the prison camp/gold mine of Kolyma for an eight year sentence. He probably would have died there had Stalin and his cronies not decimated the Russian military and scientific communities, and Termen’s distinctive skills inadvertently became a major precipitate of the Cold War.


During the Gary Powers U2 incident, the United States responded to Khruschev’s claims to the UN of unjustified US spying upon Russia with their own little bomb: a secret bug in the American Embassy hidden in a wooden copy of the Great Seal. The bug was a particular bit of Termen genius: undetectable by standard X-rays, the bug was completely nonfunctional until a directional microwave beam hit it, in which case it started broadcasting radio transmissions to a waiting receiver. Without knowing it, almost everything spoken in the Embassy was picked up by Russian radios, until a British radio operator at the UK Embassy was surprised with hearing the US ambassador speaking on an open frequency. While the CIA couldn’t ascertain the bug’s function, the MI5 did, and for a short time, the UK led the world in covert bug technology.


After this, Termen found work with a “mailbox”: operations founded and funded by the newly formed KGB that were so secretive that family members and friends who accidentally discovered that he was still alive were told in no uncertain terms that their continued good health and freedom were due to their forgetting that they had ever seen Termen in the first place. Even with these restrictions, Termen continued to work on electronic musical instruments, although officially shunned by the staff of the Moscow Academy of Arts and forgotten by most of the rest of the world.


Because of these issues and more, author Albert Glinsky had to depend upon multiple sources for most of Termen’s story: considering the Stalinist fondness for removing people from history entirely (in many cases literally, where librarians would receive packages in the mail stating that particular pages had to be removed from encyclopedias and books and replaced with new pages that removed individuals committing real or imaginary crimes against the state), the fact that a book of this magnitude was possible at all says much about Glinsky’s scholarship. In the process, he also illuminates the days when radio and television were still hobbies for a fascinated few, and shows the repercussions of Termen’s inventions over the last century. Termen himself never particularly craved being the center of attention, but his work influenced the flow of the twentieth century in innumerable and significant ways, and his death in 1993 at age 96 was, to use an overworn cliche, really the end of an era. Other inventors have influenced both technology and art since those first theremin concerts of the 1920s, but not quite in the same way.

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