Born Lev Sergeivitch Termen, 1896, in St. Petersburg, Russia; emigrated to the United States, 1927; returned to the Soviet Union, 1938; died November 3, 1993, in Moscow, Russia. Married Lavina Williams (a dancer); twin daughters. Education: Studied physics and astronomy at the University of St. Petersburg; graduated from the Higher Officers Training School of Electrical Engineering; also studied cello at the St. Petersburg conservatory of music.
Russian scientist Leon Theremin is considered the founder of electronic music. In 1918, using newly discovered vacuum-tube technology, he designed and built the first musical instrument that relied on electronic oscillation to produce its sound; furthermore, his invention remains the only instrument that is played without actual human contact. The Russian and the instrument that bore his name became renowned in classical music circles, and Theremin lived as somewhat of a celebrity in New York City during the 1930s before he was kidnapped by Soviet agents and returned home. Later, Soviet authorities reported him dead, but he was actually incarcerated in a Siberian prison camp. Theremin went on to use his expertise in electronics to create bugging devices for the Soviet secret police. In the early 1990s, an American filmmaker discovered Theremin in Moscow, then well into his nineties, and brought him to New York City for a visit in conjunction with a documentary film that celebrated the man and the invention: Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey.
Theremin was born Lev Termen in 1896 in St. Petersburg, Russia, during the tsarist era. According to one report, his family had emigrated to Russia in the sixteenth century as a result of religious repression in France. Theremin exhibited a keen interest in science from his childhood on, and eventually studied physics and astronomy at the University of St. Petersburg; he also completed training in electrical engineering. His entry into adulthood roughly coincided with the era of World War I and the fall of the Russian monarchy. The Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 and ushered in the world's first communist state, which brought with it radical new thinking in science and the arts. By 1920, Theremin was head of the experimental electronic oscillation laboratory at Petrograd's Institute of Physical Engineering. Through his attempts to devise a new kind of radio, one particular configuration of vacuum tubes and antennae evolved into the Theremin. At first, he called his invention the "aetherphon."
The instrument caused a sensation at the time. "The musician moves his or her hands above the device to disrupt an electromagnetic field and thus coax eerie, piercing notes out of the ether," explained a modern-day article by J. Hoberman in Premiere. Its very invention reflected new thinking and progressive ideals of the time--Theremin told a New York audience in 1991 that with his invention he strove to "force modern industrial technologies into the idealized realm of the arts," according to Timothy White in Billboard. The perfected theremin evolved into a podium-like device with two antennae. The horizontal antenna controls volume, while the vertical antenna modulates the pitch. Steven M. Martin, the documentary filmmaker who honored Theremin's achievements, told White: "The theremin has produced some of the most haunting and penetrating sounds ever recorded. Imagine what it's like to act as a human capacitator, interrupting an electromagnetic field to create music!"
In 1922 Theremin himself demonstrated his invention for Soviet leader Vladimir I. Lenin, and supposedly Lenin was given a theremin built by its inventor's hand. That same year the first public performance of the theremin was given in the Soviet Union. The device caused a sensation in the world of classical music; the Leningrad Philharmonic performed an original work entitled "A Symphonic Mystery" in 1924 using the instrument. Theremin gained fame and was called the "Soviet Edison." He also conducted experiments that played a role in the development of television technology. In 1926 he gave a demonstration at the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute that heralded the first transmission of non- static images onto a screen. "Although all parts of the device were known long before Theremin, he was the first to assemble them in a sequence that allowed the transmission of moving objects," declared Soviet Life.
Meanwhile, Theremin's musical invention was inciting interest among classical musicians elsewhere. He made a tour of Europe in the 1920s with it; on subsequent travels he found himself the toast of New York City in 1927 and decided to stay. The instrument's first public performance in the United States came in February 1928 at New York's Metropolitan Opera House. Manhattan's progressive crowd feted Theremin, and the emigre soon became romantically involved with a violinist--also of Russian heritage-- named Clara Rockmore. Through their collaboration Rockmore became the best-known virtuoso of the instrument. (She also played an integral role in Steven Martin's decision to make a film about Theremin and his life.) For several years Theremin ran an informal school in New York City to train enthusiasts on his instrument, which was notoriously difficult to master. Through the Soviet trade commission, Theremin obtained a patent for it, then in 1929 licensed it to RCA for mass production. The company made a thousand of them, but only a quarter of them were sold after the American economy nosedived as a result of the stock market crash in October of that same year.
During his years in New York, Theremin also made the acquaintance of luminaries such as Albert Einstein and Dwight D. Eisenhower; Einstein even played the violin at recitals at Theremin's apartment on West 54th Street. He also created the world's first electronic security system, based partly on technical knowledge gained through perfecting the theremin; he installed the first system of its kind at New York's Sing Sing Prison. Unfortunately such prominence and regard did little but earn him enmity back home, and one day in 1938 Theremin mysteriously disappeared. It was later learned that he had been kidnapped by KGB agents and spirited back to the Soviet Union. He was reported dead, but was actually in a Siberian gulag, where many prominent intellectuals and Russians with contacts in the West were "rehabilitated" in an era of totalitarianist repression in the 1930s.
Theremin was released when the exploitation of his talents became vital to Soviet military authorities. He invented numerous listening devices for the KGB, and was even awarded the Stalin Prize for this efforts. It was during this era that some American musicians working in the film industry began using the theremin to create a spooky, ethereal sound. The instrument had first been used on the soundtrack to the 1935 film The Bride of Frankenstein, but made its appearance in two acclaimed films a decade later: The Lost Weekend, the story of a man's bleak descent into alcoholism, and Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, which won an Academy Award for its music. In the latter film, the theremin's sounds were used to foreshadow a coming psychotic attack in the lead, Gregory Peck. Over the next decade, its unique tones became familiar to younger audiences in such science-fiction thrillers as The Day the Earth Stood Still and It Came from Outer Space, both dating from the early 1950s. A few odd recordings were made, such as RCA Victor's Perfume Set to Music, and the late 1940s albums Music Out of the Moon and Music for Peace of Mind.
The theremin's use in horror films awakened a new generation to the possibilities of the instrument. Musical pioneer Robert Moog, the inventor of the first synthesizer, or electronic keyboard, constructed a theremin from a magazine diagram when he was still in high school. For years, Moog sold do-it-yourself theremin kits by mail. Brian Wilson, songwriter of the Beach Boys, was moved by his initial experience hearing the theremin, and incorporated its sounds most famously in the 1966 hit "Good Vibrations." Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page mastered it for "Whole Lotta Love." Another rock act of the era, Lothar and the Hand People, made the theremin sound the centerpiece of entire albums. The Delos record label released a title called The Art of the Theremin in the late 1980s that featured Clara Rockmore's earlier performances. It was the aging Rockmore who told filmmaker Steven Martin that Theremin was still alive and well in Moscow. According to a 1988 article on him in Soviet Life, at the age of 92 he was still conducting experiments at Moscow University and walked to work each morning. Martin sought him out and brought him to New York City, where he was again feted.
Theremin's experiences in New York, a neon-lit urban landscape and a far different world than the one he left in 1938, were recorded on film for Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey. He was also able to spend time with Rockmore once again. The film was the work of Martin, Moog, and producer Hal Willner and was released in 1995, two years after Theremin's death in Moscow at the age of 97. "Since my childhood, the theremin has seemed like a window to another, less pessimistic era when people still believed progress meant a better, more visionary life," Martin told White in Billboard. "Leon Theremin pioneered the concept of the artist as scientist. I just want to see the creative journey of a great man come full circle." Village Voice writer Amy Taubin called Martin's film tribute "a graceful, evocative documentary about how historical events of great moment disrupt individual lives." By the mid-1990s several alternative bands had discovered the theremin's sound and were using it both onstage and in recordings; the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is perhaps the best-known example of this resurgence. There is even a Theremin Enthusiasts' Club International.
by Carol Brennan
Leon Theremin's Career
Conducted scientific experiments with Ivan Pavlov at the Pulkovo Observatory; headed experimental electronic oscillation laboratory at the Institute of Physical Engineering, c. 1920-27.
Leon Theremin's Awards
Received the Stalin Prize for his electronic listening devices; Centennial Medal, Stanford University, 1991, for contributions to electronic music.
- Billboard, June 6, 1992, p. 5; November 20, 1993, p. 13.
- New Yorker, September 17, 1990, pp. 34-36.
- Premiere, February 1995, pp. 44-45.
- Soviet Life, May 1988, p. 34.
- Village Voice, September 12, 1995, p. 59.