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Leon Theremin

In many of our previous editions we published in FREAKS HERO section some forgotten biographies that were rediscovered and rewritten by us. And one of the most bizarre is the Soviet-American inventor and pioneer of electronic music, Lev Sergeevich Termen (aka Léon Theremin, 1896-1993). Termen, “the secret link between sci-fi films, the Beach Boys, and Carnegie Hall,” whose “electronic musical instrument took the world by storm in the 1920s and '30s” — several decades before the rise of electronic popular music — had been forgotten for 50 years in the East and West.
Some remembered this name, though–among them were Robert Moog, the American pioneer of the synthesizer. Few musicians using the 70s’ Minimoogs or the Moog Tauruses knew that the invention of artificial sound originated in early Soviet Russia. The synthesizer is actually the later form of a music machine invented by a Russian in 1919 and produced in the USA in the 30s: the theremin or thereminvox (Termen’s voice).
Theremin's ancestors were French. He descended from the Albigo, a clan of "socialistically inclined" heretics who were routed by Catholic crusaders in the fourteenth century. His ancestors were scattered around Europe and took part in many revolutions. One branch of Theremin's genealogical tree sprouted in Russia. Young Theremin enthusiastically welcomed the October Revolution, which merged in his mind with the scientific and technical revolutions he loved. He was fond of repeating a phrase of Lenin's that supported this view: "Communism is Soviet power plus electrification of the whole country." It was with delight that Theremin would always remember his meeting with Lenin in 1922, when the world's first "official" concert of electronic music was performed in the Kremlin upon the leader's request. Being a pragmatic man, Lenin was attracted to Theremin's idea for using the remote triggering of sound signals to create alarm systems. This alarm-system version of the theremin concept was made top secret. Another invention of Theremin's that was unusual for the time---a large-screened television set ---was also made top secret after it attracted the attention of the military (NKVD) in 1927 (known as the NKVD in the 1920s and 1930s, this agency later became the KGB. It was in this way that Theremin forged relationships with the Soviet secret service that were to drag on for many years. Theremin earned the right to devote himself to his favorite field—electronic art—but under the condition that he would be the obedient assistant of the Soviet government.
Although Termen had a musical education (he played the cello) he was first and foremost an inventor. He was not interested in politics but mainly in technical inventions—something repeatedly pointed out in the portrait of him painted by Zelenka. Termen was indeed an extraordinarily gifted inventor and also a brilliant engineer. Let me just name a few of his inventions:(48) a television apparatus with 100 lines (which was classified right after its invention in the twenties), the rhytmikon (an early drum computer), an electric cello, several instruments for combining music and light, an altimeter for airplanes, and an electric glove which was the predecessor of the cyber-gloves constructed several decades later. Only in the perestroyka period has Termen been credited with even more fantastic inventions, which seem to be right out of a spy novel. Back in Russia he invented two types of bugs–both based on his innovative principle of contactlessness and both aiming at abolishing the usual interfaces needed for eavesdropping.
He was still fascinated with the subject in his 90s, but the man who had lived almost a century died at the age of 97 in 1993.
Not only Termen’s inventions but also his exceptional biography attracted people from different backgrounds–from those engaged in electronic music to journalists interested in the history of the Soviet secret service. The combination of the invention of the synthesizer (thus fathering the essential and omnipotent instrument of pop music) and his work for the NKVD gives him the appearance of an obscure but attractive wizard around whom a true cult developed. The internet without a doubt fostered this cult, allowing the multilingual theremaniac to make connections between the Moscow theremin center, with valuable texts on the history of electronic music and developments of multimedia (an excellent site mostly in Russian, not exclusively dedicated to Termen; The Milano based (“Art, Technology & Gesture”),(13) a site dedicated to Galeyev’s light music performances in the Institute "Prometei" in Kazan, performances of Termen’s grand-niece,( conducting workshops all over the world, down to the with a forum, a shop, as well as audio and video samples ) You will find several amateur sites of different quality dedicated directly to Termen (like the Theremin Enthusiasts Club International) and dozens of sites which make use of his name and inventions. It is quite telling that many musicians who use the theremin themselves, or just theremin fans, have the feeling that the theremin (coined as the “tractor replacing the plow in music” by the Soviet press in the 20s) is not presented flatteringly enough in the official discourse about musical instruments; we will find several short histories of the theremin, some of them with rare illustrative material of the first theremin boxes and the first thereministes in the world. On this site you will hear a short theremin sound when opening it. If by now you would like to actually hear what a theremin sounds like, you can listen to Les Baxter with delightfully vibrating Samuel Hoffman, “Music out of the moon” from 1947, “two of the earliest, if not the earliest, pop theremin albums ever produced”.
Surfing the WWW in search of famous people who played the theremin you will find most probably the Beach Boys with “Good Vibrations,” J.M. Jarre using it together with a laser harp in his shows,(16) his “protégé” Albert Einstein, testing the instrument together with his wife while he was working on his own scientific problems in Termen’s house in Manhattan on West 54th Street,(17) or Lenin playing Mikhail Glinka’s “Skylark” with Termen four-handed. It is also known as a favourite instrument of Dr. Albert Hoffman.
Termen remains relatively unknown in Slavic Studies and in the history of media. Very little scholarly literature exists on him, although his inventions and his biography call for a contextualization and a thorough evaluation not only from a political and musicological perspective, but also a cultural point of view. He certainly is a phenomenon very much connected to his time and the country of his origin.
Moog stresses that Termen’s work is the cornerstone of the use of electronics in musical instrument design. The most significant difference between a theremin and an analogue synthesizer like the Minimoog is that the latter has a keyboard as user interfaces and is therefore easier to play. The difficulty of the theremin is that there are no visible markers for finding individual notes, much less determining the exact pitch.
But the Thereminvox sound remains the first psychedelic artificial sound on the Planet.
Read 1276 times Last modified on Sunday, 15 June 2014 08:26


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