Leon Theremin

The life of Leon Theremin is the stuff of spy novels, rife with espionage, electronic gadgetry, high society, and kidnapping. Whether or not he intended his life to take the road it did is questionable. It appears to have had a trajectory, over which the control was not entirely his.   Lev Sergeyevich Termen was born on August 15, 1896, in St. Petersburg, later known as Leningrad. His father was a lawyer, and his mother was interested in the arts, especially music and drawing. In high school he attended the conservatory and graduated with the title of “free artist on the violoncello.” Later, he attended St. Petersburg University and studied physics and astronomy. He once wrote, “…I was uneasy about the contradiction between the music and the manner in which it was obtained: by the movement of the bow, resembling a saw and by pressing the fingers against the strings.” Theremin’s fascination with electricity provided him with the solution to his unease. He created a device, consisting of tubes and coils, which created an electromagnetic field. Two antennae protruded, a vertical one from the top, and a curved, horizontal one from the side. The performer never touched the instrument. Rather, his/her hands would manipulate the electromagnetic field, using the hand’s proximity to the vertical antenna to control the volume, and the horizontal one to control pitch. Since the sound seemed to come out of the ether, he dubbed it the “etherphone.” It was later patented, and was dubbed the “Theremin.”     Theremin toured Europe demonstrating his device, and was invited in May of 1922 to the Kremlin, to demonstrate the device to Vladimir Lenin. During their meeting, the two discussed various types of energy and ways to provide electricity to the entire U.S.S.R. Afterward, Theremin was granted permission to travel to Europe and the United States in order to continue his work and promote his instrument. In addition, though, he was required to commit industrial espionage.   At the time of his arrival in New York in 1927, Theremin was married to a woman by the name of Katia Constantinova. The couple had and had been married in 1921, and traveled throughout Europe together while Theremin demonstrated his instrument. Katia was interested in medicine, and had enrolled in medical school some distance from their apartment in Manhattan. She remained in the dormitory, and visited her husband weekly. One day, the Embassy contacted him and ordered him to divorce his wife on the grounds that she had been associated with a fascist organization in the United States. Theremin spoke with Katia by phone, and she confirmed that she had friends who were a part of the organization in question, but claimed not to be a part of it. Without either party’s consent, the divorce was implemented, and the couple never saw each other again. This proved to be just one of many of the ways in which Soviet officials controlled Theremin’s life.   Theremin remained in New York for eleven years, and became associated with New York’s elite. He rented a six-story house at 37 West 54th Street, and set up a studio. There he continued to improve the Theremin, and he experimented with other electronic instruments. This gave him the opportunity to work with lauded and well-known composers, musicians, and scientists. For example, he gave Albert Einstein a small room in his house so that he could explore the relationship between music and geometrical figures. In 1930, the theremin was the subject of a Carnegie Hall performance featuring ten thereminists. By 1932, Leon Theremin was breaking ground by conducting the first electronic orchestra, featuring the theremin, as well as a fingerboard theremin, which was played similarly to a cello.    During his stay in New York, Theremin also explored an electronic musical device, which could be used in dance performances. He created performance spaces that would react to a dancer’s movements with variations in light and sound. In developing this, he worked with the American Negro Ballet, and became acquainted with prima ballerina Lavinia Williams. The two fell in love and eventually married, and their interracial marriage caused considerable uproar within his social circle. The two remained married throughout the remainder of his stay in the United States, and for some time beyond that time.   In 1938, Leon Theremin was abducted from New York by the KGB. At first, it was believed that he was homesick, and that he had returned to the USSR voluntarily. Even his wife was unsure of the reason for his return, though she believed he had been kidnapped. Theremin was not heard from for many years, which caused significant rumors to circulate, not the least of which was that he had died. In truth, Theremin was accused of disseminating anti-Soviet propaganda, and was charged with treason. He was sent to a Siberian labor camp called Magadan and “employed” as a road construction supervisor. Eight months later, he was transferred to a secret lab, where he was compelled to pursue technical advancements. He spent the next 20 years of his life there, and so scant was news of him that he was presumed dead. It was there that he developed the first ever “bug,” or electronic listening device. It was called “The Thing,” and it was simply ingenious. A tiny condenser microphone was connected to a small antenna, which had no power supply. It became active when 330 MHz microwaves were beamed to it from a transmitter. Sound waves made the microphone vibrate, that varied the capacitance detected by the antenna, which then modulated the microwaves. A receiver, working much the way that a radio decodes radio waves, turned the modulated microwave signal into sound. “The Thing’s” very small size, along with an absence of power supply, made it extremely difficult to detect and very durable. So much so that, in 1945, it was embedded in a carved wooden plaque of the Great Seal of the United States. Soviet school children gave the carving to Ambassador Averell Harriman as a “gesture of friendship.” There it stayed and spied until 1952, when a British radio operator heard conversations on an open radio channel, causing the CIA to search for and discover the device.       Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. displays the Great Seal Bug at the United Nations, May 26, 1960   Theremin’s work for the Soviets was exemplary, and it put him back in their good graces. He was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1945, and was “rehabilitated.” Shortly thereafter, he married his third wife, Maria. In 1947, the couple had twin daughters, Helena and Natalia. He took at post at the Moscow Conservatory, continuing his work with electronic instruments. But his time there was short-lived. He was expelled in 1967, told by the Conservatory director’s assistant that, “…electricity is not good for music; electricity is to be used for electrocution.” As a matter of perspective, it is useful to understand that electronic music was considered to be modern music, which the Soviets considered to be harmful to the sensibilities of the working class.   Leon Theremin returned to visit in the west in 1989, after being under state arrest for 51 years. In an interview with French musicologist Olivia Mattis, it is clear that his newly found freedom to move about the world must be closely guarded. Mattis asked him questions that, on their face were benign, such as which composers he worked with. For instance, when she inquired about his work with composer Edgar Varese, he at first was vague, and then, when pressed, replied, “I am afraid to say anything about that.” His final comments in the interview are telling:   The only thing I wanted to ask, maybe of some people (if it were allowed by the Soviet government), is that I be allowed to promote my instruments. You must make the impression that I came here-- that I was allowed to come here. It seems that there will be no punishment for me if write in the newspaper about all I have told you. I hope-- We'll see what happens. The same with my invention. I want to stress to you that all this needs to be done in a disciplined way, and that when people will be asking about me and writing about me, that all this be done in a responsible way. But if you write that I have said something against the Soviet government and said that it is better to work elsewhere, then I shall have difficulties back home. [ironic laughter]     Leon Theremin died on November 3, 1993 in Moscow at the age of 97, the day after the debut of the American documentary of his life, “Theremin, An Electronic Odyssey.” His work left him to be remembered as the pioneer of electronic music, and has had a wide range of influence in modern music, most notably with the work of Robert Moog, inventor of the Moog synthesizer. In an interview, Moog spoke of Theremin’s impact, calling his work, “…the biggest, fattest, most important musical cornerstone of the whole electronic music movement…that’s where it all began.” Musicians who are noted for playing the theremin range from Rosalyn Tureck and Clara Rockmore to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, and Led Zeppelin. In addition, he used the motion-sensitivity technology of the theremin to invent the first alarm system triggered by movement that disrupted an electromagnetic field.