Between “Bad Things” and “Good Vibrations”: Leon Theremin and his T-Vox
During the glasnost period when many forgotten biographies were rediscovered and rewritten, one of the most bizarre finds was the Soviet-American inventor and pioneer of electr(on)ic 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”(Grand Performances. “Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey”. Grandperformances.org, http://www.grandperformances.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/season_schedule.show_detail/s_id/89.) — 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.(BBC News. “Obituary: Dr Robert Moog”. BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/music/4696651.stm and http://www.thereminvox.com/article/articleview/181/1/3.) 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).
For Western music and technology buffs familiar with the theremin, it was quite a sensation that Termen turned out to be alive(Editors of Thereminvox.com. “So Long, Bob”. Thereminvox.com, http://www.thereminvox.com/article/articleview/181/1/3.) in Moscow at the end of the 80s. Western interviewers like Steven M. Martin, the director of a documentary about Termen, were suddenly able to speak to a stunningly eccentric person of over 90 years of age who had lived in both worlds–or rather three or four worlds: The Tzarist Petersburg, the Soviet Union, the USA, Magadan–not to mention the two years of Post-Soviet Russia when he managed to join the Communist Party.(It was not until 1991, when the Soviet Union had crashed ignominiously, that Theremin entered the Communist Party. When I asked him why he chose to do this, he answered, “I promised Lenin I would!” According to his explanation, he had tried to enter the party many times before, but was continually rejected. Being a descendant of the Albigo and a man of honor, he fulfilled the promise as soon as the opportunity arose, even though 70 years had passed.“ Galeyev on http://mitpress2.mit.edu/e-journals/Leonardo/isast/journal/journal96/LMJ6/galeyevintro.html.) By then he was a very old but still charming man with petersburgian aristocratic manners and a detached aloofness. He was a man who enjoyed punning, as the following palindrome demonstrates: Ya potomu takoy zhivuchi, chto moja familiya naoborot chitaetsya “ne mret” (I cannot die because my name reads backwards: “Doesn’t die” – ne mret -> Termen).
Although Termen had to give up his earthly body in 1993, he seems to still be alive in the vibes of his most popular invention that was not intended for police or military purposes: the theremin, still going strong as an ingenious albeit demonic afterimage of the 20th century, playing the strings of the web from outer space—–touchless.(Only for the Western spelling (Theremin) does the web give over 2 million results (via Google). Comparatively, “Luigi Russolo” returns 185.000 results and 1.180.000 for “Vladimir Horowitz”.) According to a current performer of the instrument, the London based thereministe Hypnotique, Termen even shows discontent from beyond the grave by means of technical interfering.(Synthtopia.com. “Hypnotique: Mistress of the Theremin”. Synthopia.com, http://www.synthtopia.com/interviews/Hypnotique.html.)
Although Termen was never completely forgotten in the USSR,(Gleb Anfilov, Physics and Music. (Moscow: Detgiz, 1962). Lev Sergeevich Termen, Physics and the Art ofMusic (Moscow: Detgiz, 1966).) it was not until the late 80s that more accurate biographical details of Theremin’s life began to be published. In 1992 the Theremin Center was founded in Moscow by A. Smirnov(http://asmir.theremin.ru/asmirbio.htm). In 1995 the physicist and artist Bulat Galeyev published his book on Termen, Soviet Faust, based on conversations with Termen over many decades planned to form a film originally.(Bulat Galeyev, Sovyetsky Faust. (Kazan, 1995), 4.) As in the perestroika and early Post-Soviet time there was huge interest in the opening of the archives and information connected to formerly classified data. Galeyev tries to come to terms with Termen’s ties with the secret service:
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 and the Narodny Komissariat Vnutrennich Del (NKVD) in 1927 (known as the NKVD in the 1920s and 1930s, this agency later became the Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti [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.(http://mitpress2.mit.edu/e-journals/Leonardo/isast/journal/journal96/LMJ6/galeyevintro.html)
Not only Termen’s inventions but also his exceptional biography attracted people from different backgrounds–from those engaged in electronic music(Albert Glinsky, Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage. (University of Illinois Press, 2000).) 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(Obviously there is a not only a language divide but also a cultural difference between the smaller Russian speaking Termen and the mostly English speaking international Theremin world. Although Russian documents about Thermen are often triggered by his sensational biography they show a rather serious approach to Termen’s biography (the Moscow musicologist E. Petrushanskaya’s gives us a very sensitive and knowledgable portrait of the musician in “Termenvopl’” / “Termen-Shout” on http://theremin.ru/) whereas Western Thermeniana are much more oriented towards popular culture, soundtracks and the visual side of the history of the theremin.) 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; http://theremin.ru/). The Milano based Thereminvox.com (“Art, Technology & Gesture”),(“The goal of Thereminvox.com is to investigate the role of technology as a tool for expressive manifestations and the relations between art, technology and the human body.”) a site dedicated to Galeyev’s light music performances in the Institute “Prometei” in Kazan, performances of Termen’s grand-niece,(http://www.lydiakavina.com/where.html) conducting workshops all over the world, down to the thereminworld.com with a forum, a shop, as well as audio and video samples.(One of them showing old Termen, and how he teaches an American to play his instrument: http://silvertone.princeton.edu/paul/theremin.mov) 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)(B. Galeyev, “Legenderay Termen” in Repressed Science (Leningrad, 1991), 327–334.) 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 USA–one of them Termen’s student Alexandra Stepanova (http://www.alexanderbreton.com/history.html). 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”. For more of Hoffman but also other musicians check out http://www.thereminvox.com/filemanager/list/1/ or http://thereminworld.com/sounds.asp. In some of the more experimental samples you will find a blend of the human voice, the theremin and other instruments (http://www.inactivists.com/illgiveyoumine.mp3).
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,(Most recently in the Gdansk Shipyard on August 26, 2005 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Solidarnosc´ trade union’s founding (http://www.jarre.pl/). Jarre’s concert for the 850th anniversary of Moscow in 1997 introduced a broader Russian public to the name of Termen, since Jarre mentioned him publicly.) 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,(Olivia Mattis. “An Interview with Leon Theremin”. thereminvox.com. http://www.thereminvox.com/article/articleview/18/1/1.) or Lenin playing Mikhail Glinka’s “Skylark” with Termen four-handed:
Theremin: After I played the piece they applauded, including Vladimir Il’yich [Lenin], who had been watching very attentively during my playing. I played Glinka’s “Skylark”, which he loved very much, and Vladimir Il’yich said, after all this applause, that I should show him, and he would try himself to play it. He stood up, moved to the instrument, stretched his hands out, left and right: right to the pitch and left to the volume. I took his hands from behind and helped him. He started to play “Skylark”. He had a very good ear, and he felt where to move his hands to get the sound: to lower them or to raise them. In the middle of this piece I thought that he could himself, independently, move his hands. So I took my hands off of his, and he completed the whole thing independently, by himself, with great success and with great applause following. He was very happy that he could play on this instrument all by himself.(http://www.thereminvox.com/article/articleview/18/1/1)
This legend about Lenin playing the theremin instantly contributed greatly to its popularity – and not only because it was Lenin. One of the big attractions of this instrument is without doubt that anybody can produce a great variety of sounds on it without great effort, which gives it a somewhat democratic air. If it comes to playing a tune however (and not just generating growling sounds or eerie glissandos), the whole thing turns out to be challenging (some people say it is the most difficult instrument in terms of questions of pitch).
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. This seems especially clear when one looks at Termen’s answer to the interviewer Olivia Mattis (probably the first Westerner who interviewed Termen) in 1989 with respect to the origins of his invention:
Theremin: In the Soviet Union at that time everyone was interested in new things, in particular all the new uses of electricity: for agriculture, for mechanical uses, for transport, for communication. And so then, at that time, when everyone was interested in these fields, I decided to create a musical use for electricity. I made a few first apparatuses that were made [based on principles of] the human interference of radio waves in space, at first used in [electronic] security systems, then applied to musical purposes.(http://oddmusic.com/theremin/theremin_interview_1.html)
Since Termen was an agent of the Soviet secret service and worked in a secret laboratory (sharashka)(Termen returned home in the heyday of this phenomenon in the USSR: “Sharashka (sometimes Sharaga or Sharazhka) was an informal name for secret research and development laboratories in the Soviet Gulag labor camp system. (…) The scientists and engineers at a sharashka were prisoners picked from various camps and prisons and assigned to work on scientific and technological problems for the state. Living conditions were usually much better than in an average taiga camp, especially bearing in mind the absence of hard labor. The results of the research in sharashkas were usually published under the names of prominent Soviet scientists without credit given to the real authors, whose names frequently have been forgotten. Some sharashka inmates, brilliant scientists and engineers released during and after World War II, continued independent careers and became world-famous. (…)In 1938, Lavrenty Beria proposed to create “Department of Special Design Bureaus at the NKVD USSR”. In 1939 it was renamed into the “Special Technical Bureau at the NKVD USSR”. In 1941 it received a secret name, the “4th Special Department of the NKVD USSR”, existed until 1953.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharashka Termen worked in the same sharashka as plane constructor A. Tupolev and the builder of space ships, S. Korolyov.) in Moscow and later in other NKVD secret labs (until 1966),(In connection with the recent TV series based on Solzhenitsyn’s The first circle (2006, Gleb Anfilov) in Russia these days there is a vivid interest in special laboratories where imprisoned scientists worked (cf. the discussions of the series, e.g. on http://online.izvestia.ru/archive.pl?fl=a). The first circle deals with voice decoding, an area where Termen proved to be a specialist. Some try to see the sharashkas as part of a system of a high level output of scientific inventions (this perspective you will also find in the book of the physic Galeyev which has a chapter called “Ode to the military-industrial complex”).) all information about his biography was classified by nature.(Ida Rubinstein, “The Secret Musician“, in: Migdal’ Times Nr. 58. http://www.migdal.ru/times.php.) Being one of the truly creative engineering brains Termen approved himself of the mystification of his biography. We hear and read very different accounts of his life–some sources claim he was kidnapped (repatriated to the USSR) by NKVD operatives in 1938 from his Manhattan apartment; Suki Bader, one of the dancers interviewed for Steven Martin’s film says that he must have had very good reasons to leave his luxurious life in America abandoning his new wife without a warning—this “definite reason” being “a gun in his back.” This explanation does not take into account other forms of indirect violence like blackmail—so the “gun” might have not been an actual weapon at all. There are also rather implausible rumours that he left because of his debts. He himself claimed in interviews that he returned to the USSR voluntarily:(Cf. Galeyev: “Theremin’s American adventure’ is full of dark and uncertain episodes (it would be interesting to find out how much the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency knew at the time about the secret activities of the prominent inventor and millionaire). Martin’s film informs us, for example, that Theremin was kidnapped by the KGB and returned to the Soviet Union by force in 1938. However, Theremin told me that he made the decision to leave the United States himself, being anxious about the impending war.”(http://leonardo.info/isast/journal/journal96/LMJ6/galeyevintro.html))
I left New York because— Of course, I was there on assignment all the time, but the assignments dealt with seemingly unimportant issues for military purposes. But at that time the war was coming. The military troops of the fascists were approaching Leningrad, etc., and I asked to be sent to the Soviet Union so as to make myself useful. I asked many times. For a whole year I asked to be sent back. The war had already started. And they didn’t send me, they didn’t send me. Then at last they permitted me. They assigned me to be an assistant to the captain of a large motor ship. So I went home, but they did not take my wife.(http://oddmusic.com/theremin/theremin_interview_1.html)
This is an improbable explanation because neither in 1937 nor in 1938 could “fascist” troops be before Leningrad. This happened only three years later, in 1941 (after the intermezzo of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, starting on the 23rd of August 1939). Obviously this is an ex post correction of the reasons of his return which will remain unexplained until in the future when somebody finds the answer in the secret service archives. Some sources claim he divorced his first Russian wife in the United States because she had been dating a Fascist; others call this a fabrication by the secret service to facilitate the divorce. There seems to be more disinformation than information about him. The situation is all the more complicated due to his many fields of endeavour, e.g. music, electricity, engineering, and, of course, secret agency. If we bear in mind that Termen has been an agent for decades we should not believe his words easily–especially if we are aware that he might have been afraid until the end that somebody might harm him–this seems clear from the interview taken by Martin in 1990 in which he reluctantly talks about his years after the return to the USSR–avoiding words like “prison” and using paraphrases like “I was not free.”(In his interview to Steven Martin in 1991 he admitted that he is still afraid of the “Kaga Bay“, that is, KGB, which Steven thought would be some bay in the south.”.“Ida Rubinstein,“ “The Secret Musician“, in: Migdal’ Times Nr. 58) – http://www.migdal.ru/times.php.)
Steven M. Martin’s film Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey(A Kaga Bay production in association with Channel 4; written, produced, directed by Steven M. Martin. Winner of the Filmmakers Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival; awarded the Golden Gate Award at the 37th Annual San Francisco Film Festival; nominated for a British Academy Award. It was released as a DVD by MGM in the USA in 2001. There are obviously two releases, one is 83 min, the cut version 81 min. According to Steven Martin there will come out a new, special edition with extra footage soon.) (USA/UK, 1994) is an extraordinary homage to Termen. When it was broadcasted by the BBC (a day before Termen’s death in 1993) it surely was a decisive leap in international interest in him. It contains valuable film documents, both from archives and filmed by Martin himself: The archival footage is mostly taken from newsreels and newspaper clippings dating from 1927—1938 (Termen’s time in Europe and America). There are scenes from Theremin’s visit to the USA in 1991, an interview in Moscow in his modest apartment, and a clip of his visit in the Glinka Music Museum where he tends to the thereminvox on display with a penknife.
The film owes a lot to the presence of Termen’s first muse, Clara Rockmore (1911-1998).(A Russian-Jewish émigré, born as Clara Reisenberg in Vilnius, who had to give up her violin career due to muscular problems and became Termen’s best student and most challenging inspirator. For her biography cf. http://www.peterpringle.com/clara.html and the DVD “Mastering the Theremin” with Lydia Kavina and “Clara Rockmore – World’s Greatest Theremin Virtuosa”. http://www.moogmusic.com/detail.php?main_product_id=130&) In a clip we see the special cake Termen gave her for her 18th birthday. The cake reacts to an approaching body by revolving and the candle lights up.
There are performances by Rockmore, the grande dame of the theremin, who played only classical music on it. The film-maker lets us witness the meeting of aged Lev and Clara in her Manhattan apartment in the early 90s. Clara shows him her first thereminvox, constructed by him more than half a century ago.
We also see the theremin virtuosa, Lydia Kavina (pictured right)(From the DVD “Mastering the Theremin” with Lydia Kavina and “Clara Rockmore – World’s Greatest Theremin Virtuosa”.), Termen’s grand-niece, who–aside of Termen’s daughter Natasha—secured the classical theremin tradition in Russia. She started out with a classical repertoire (compositions for the theremin by Edgar Varèse, Joseph Schillinger, Bohuslav Martinu) but also ventured into other areas (she played the instrument in several Tom Waits & Robert Wilson productions like Alice and the The Black Rider in Hamburg); she is also a composer for the theremin in her own right.
There are also interviews with several American musicians, colleagues of Theremin (some of them of Russian descent), and with Robert Moog who started building theremins as a teenager (following instructions in a hobbyist magazine based on the thereminvox patented(One can look at his patent issued on February 28, 1928 on the following website: http://www.uspto.gov/patft/index.html. It has the number 1,661,058. Many other inventions listed there, some of them recent ones, are based on “theremin antennas” (proximity sensors) like the “Musical tone control apparatus using a detector” (1994) or a “Fluid Dispenser” (2001). In the “Proximity switch system for electronic equipment” (1999) you will find inaccurate descriptions like: “This scheme is related to a device known as the Theremin, invented around 1930 by the Russian physicist, Leon Theremin.” Cf. also the patent abstract: “System and methods for mattress control in relation to patient distance”, 2003: “The heterodyning proximation detector is an improved version of a somewhat obscure musical instrument that had been developed in the United States during the 1920s called a “Theremin”. The present invention improves on the musical instrument’s ability to sense a human’s natural reactance, or electrical characteristics, and applies this improvement to therapeutically regulating an air mattress.”) by Termen when he was in the USA).(Termen granted commercial production rights to the RCA Victor and other firms like General Electric. “Aetherphone, thereminvox, theremin — the instrument is perhaps more obscure than it needs to be. Its invention opened the door to electronic music. Its tone set people’s hair on end when they heard it, music from another realm. Upon its introduction to America in 1928, it enjoyed a decade in the limelight. RCA manufactured 500 of them in 1929, but then the expensive and frightfully difficult instrument became nearly forgotten until it was revived for film scores in the late ’40s and ’50s.” (http://spellbound.purplenote.com/about.htm) In 1953 Robert Moog founded his first company to manufacture theremin kits. Moog’s synthesizer, developped in the early 60s, was the first commercial electronic musical instrument. Similar to the theremin the synthesizer gained popularity by a classical repertoire: Walter/Wendy Carlos released the record Switched On Bach (J.S. Bach performed on a Moog synthesizer) in 1968.)
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 interface 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.(“Termen also built a theremin with a keyboard which he demonstrated in the Moscow conservatory in 1927 (Galeyev 1995, p. 38).”)
Martin’s film also includes enjoyable clips from Hollywood films, which used theremins for their soundtracks, namely the first theremin movie hit, made in 1945: Hitchcock’s Spellbound (although Hitchcock himself seemed not to like Miklós Rózsa’s soundtrack it eventually won an Oscar),(P. McGilligan, Alfred Hitchcock. A Life in Darkness and Light. (New York, ReganBooks, 2003), 379.) followed by Lost Weekend (1945, Billy Wilder; with Rózsa’s music), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, Robert Wise; with Bernard Herrmann’s music), and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, Miloš Forman). He covers American film music only–there is no mentioning of Theremins in Soviet films: Esfir Shub’s Komsomol, chef elektrifikatsii (Komsomol, Patron of Electrification, 1932), where we see a theremin on the screen, or of Shostakovich’s soundtrack for the silent movie Odna/Alone (1931, Kozintsev/Trauberg), which includes parts for a throat-singer and a theremin.(The sound of certain styles of throat- or overtone-singing is reminiscent of a theremin.) Maybe the early Soviet reception of the instrument will be included in the sequel that was already planned by Martin in the nineties.(According to Galeyev, Termen himself loved the movies. He even showed Galeyev a notebook where he had been writing down all films he saw, more than 4000, in order not to see one twice (Galeyev 1995, 72).) There is very little information in the film about the first theremin revival in the forties in Hollywood when it started to be used as a generator of “spooky” sounds and atmosphere in the 40s. It would be interesting to learn how the Hungaro-American Rózsa, who was famous for his “full-bodied orchestrations in the European Romantic tradition”(L. Maltin, Movie Encyclopedia (New York, 1994).) discovered this instrument, which by the forties seemed to have been almost forgotten. As it seems, Hitchcock had given the composer “very precise” instructions for Spellbound: “a big sweeping love theme for Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck and a ‘new sound’ for the paranoia which formed the subject of the picture”(P. McGilligan 2003, p. 359). Rózsa, looking for a “new sound,” hired the only thereminist available in L.A., Samuel Hoffman, for Spellbound:
The foot doctor whose nervous theremin style defined the sound of ghosts, goblins, and space invaders started his musical career as a violin player in New York. Starting at the age of 14, Hoffman became the youngest musician to play at Loew’s New York Roof Garden, and later formed his own orchestra. He studied podiatry at Long Island University and became a foot doctor by day and band leader by night (under the stage name Hal Hope). He obtained his theremin in a barter with another musician and integrated it into his act as a novelty. In the 1940’s Dr. Hoffman transferred his medical practice to Los Angeles. In keeping with his habits as a union musician, he registered as violinist and, under “other instruments,” as thereminist. When film composer Miklos Rozsa was looking for a thereminist to play in Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), Hoffman was the only one listed and he was hired on the spot when Rozsa heard him quickly sight-read his developing score. Hoffman went on to play theremin in dozens of Hollywood films in the 1940’s and 1950’s, usually for scenes of fear, madness, drunkenness, and emotional distress.(IMDb mini-biography by Scott Marshall (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0388867/bio). Listen to Hoffmann “explaining” the theremin at the Johnny Carson’s Show http://www.thereminvox.com/filemanager/list/5/ (“Sam And Johnny Carson“). On “Hoffman On TV“ (http://www.thereminvox.com/filemanager/list/5/) you can listen to excerpts from The Lost Weekend and Spellbound.)
“Dr. Hoffman” subsequently played the theremin in dozens of psychodramas, thrillers, and sci-fi movies like The Spiral Staircase (1946, Robert Siodmak), The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951), It Came from Outer Space (1953, Jack Arnold), and the “Batman” TV Series (1966).(Unfortunately, on the DVD the “The Mickey Mouse Club Show”, the clip with Hoffman is missing. The original theremin was used again more widely in the 90s (in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, 1994 and Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, 1999 – in both Kavina played the theremin on the score). This was also the time when Moog started producing theremins again.) The theremin was also very popular for generating spine-tingling sound effects in B horror movies.
Another film one could mention is the slightly surrealistic The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953, Roy Rowland): Here the theremin sound is linked to a sadistic piano teacher, Dr. T (“Bart: I don’t think the piano is my instrument. Dr. Terwilliker: What other instruments are there, pray tell? Scratchy violins, screechy piccolos, nauseating trumpets, et cetera, et cetera?”). The theremin (just like the piano or the organ before) and its keyboard version, the later synthesizer, without doubt are instruments with an universal pretense aiming at substituting older, less versatile or less advanced instruments.
The fascination of Martin’s film–even for an audience neither interested in Soviet history nor with theremaniacal inclination–comes from the ability to be infected by the material itself. The documentary takes us from one time and/or space to another without connecting them by means of an auctorial commentary: From Moscow in the early nineties to glamorous Manhattan and gruelling Magadan in the thirties, and then back to photographs of Termen as a young Soviet scientist when he was planning to revivify his dead research assistant.(A young girl who died unexpectedly. A few years later he wanted to freeze the fresh corpse of Lenin and was very upset when he found out that they had already removed the brain of his idol.) This cutting between time frames and very different civilizations underlines the absurd and unforeseen turns in Termen’s “electronic odyssey” (the subtitle of Martin’s film). By bypassing the instance of a narrator, Martin also avoids taking a judgemental or moralizing view.
The witnesses and the documents speak quite eloquently for themselves. The viewer is challenged to make a connection between the disparate clips with Lenin’s being interested in the electrification of the USSR, Jerry Lewis dancing with a wooden podium emitting obscene sounds (until the Mad Scientist interrupts their delightful rendezvous),(Don McGuire, The Delicate Delinquent. 1957.) aged Termen rambling about the “inside of the womb of his mother” and the Soviet “Ministry of Inside Things,” the Beach Boy Brian Wilson rambling about his infantile fear of this almost “sexual” sound, the red plush walls of the Glinka museum in Moscow, secret Soviet labs and prison camps, or Gregory Peck staring in beautifully psychotic pain at the dark parallel lines on Ingrid Bergman’s robe. The more remote and the wilder the leaps, the better and the more enthralling it was. For Martin and his sound mixer, it is not too difficult to bring it all together: The sound of the theremin itself—a mixture of a nervous violin, a mosquito buzzing in a nightmare, and a sweetly quavering siren—manages to join all this heterogeneous material into a rich and emblematic picture of the electric era. It is Termen’s vox which ties up an incredibly disrupted biography of a Russian Odysseus who invented a machine to produce artificial sound but also provides the story of a violent century(Galeyev 1995, p. 95, ends his book with the remark that Termen as a Soviet Faust could be a very good representative of the 20th century.) bursting with new inventions and media used for entertainment and warfare, in wars Hot and Cold.
The film starts with a tiny red dot which turns out to be part of the thereminvox slowly emerging from the star-spangled black sky. We hear the uncanny music from The Day The Earth Stood Still when we hear a Russian voice speaking in English about L.S. Termen’s personal “beginning” on this earth: “When I was inside in my mother there was no life there. Somebody pulled me in this direction…I heard in this time my voice, my vox, it was a very, very unpleasant influence on my voice from the light. This was my beginning,” 1923, or it the rhythmikon and the bugs) certainly was one of the principal areas where Termen would later make inventions (the original theremin is based on the use of radio lamps). He seems to model and mystify his birth memories as a harbinger for his later explorations, connecting them to other experiments with light and sound, namely Scriabin’s light-music (svetomuzyka) of the teens, which incidentally was of primary interest to the Russian Termen biographer, Galeyev.
After having seen this film and having developed sympathy for the old fragile man, one might ask oneself whether this feeling is justified. He was, after all, an agent of the NKVD/KGB, and obviously not morally intact. We do like secret agents the way we like certain kinds of criminals–especially on the silver screen or when their secret mission is viewed in a positive light. Did Termen have a mission that justifies benign judgement? This question is one which is posed in the recent Czech play “Teremin” by the film maker and dramatist Peter Zelenka (http://www.dejvickedivadlo.cz/). Zelenka, 10 years after Martin’s documentary, much more seriously than Martin and rather uncompromisingly tries to come to terms with Termen’s persona and the dark sides of the history of the USSR. Rather surprisingly, Zelenka seems to use this play to settle accounts with Communism(Cf. the review with the title “Teremin – a Strong Reflexion of Unfree Past”/ “Teremin je silnou reflexi nesvobodne minulosti“, Praha, 21.11.2005, http://ihned.cz/index.php?p=000000_d&article%5Bid%5D=17243050) – Communism particularly as a system producing cynicism. Even the dedication to the recently deceased American theremin lover Robert Moog seems to be a political statement.
Lev Termen in Zelenka’s play is a rather cold and sleek person (played by Ivan Trojan, one of Zelenka’s regular actors portraying odd heroes). Zelenka’s and Trojan’s Termen lacks the infantile naivety and the ambiguous humour of the real Termen. In the Dejvice theatre he appears to be just a selfish person who was mostly interested in gadgets and technology. If one remembers Zelenka’s rather extraordinary films(Most of his film are absurdist, surreal or grotesque, especially Knoflíkári (Buttoners 1997) and the para-documentary about a popular Czech singer Rok d’ábla (Year of the Devil, 2002). His latest film was more main-stream: Príbehy obycejného šílenství (Tales of Common Insanity, 2005).) one cannot be but surprised how conventional his production looks (he himself directed his own play).
Some critics point out that Trojan learned to play the theremin for this production. This surely is an achievement. However, seeing Trojan and his colleagues play the theremin in a half serious half parodistic manner,(Introducing a mocking tone and suspending the borders between real and surreal obviously does not work the same way as it does in (self-)ironic Zelenka’s films.) I suddenly wondered why playing this instrument in the Prague play is the job and privilege of men only.
In the history of the theremin the majority of theremin players for “spooky” soundtracks were men (Hoffmann who started as a part time musician and thereminist) whereas the great solo performers in concert halls were and still are women; in some accounts you will find the notion that Termen himself was not among the best players of his instrument. The most famous thereministes seemed to prefer the rather challenging classical repertoire (or at least start out with it as it is the case with Kavina) and often devote their whole life to the instrument. These women, mostly charismatic musicians, were able to give the thereminvox performance a strong visual aspect, which a soundtrack by nature cannot provide (especially if the music is non-diegetic which mostly is the case with theremins in films). Does the theremin, invented by a man, and played best by women, have a gender aspect–as it is with some instruments which are favourably taught to boys or girls and respectively played by men or by women (like the harp or the double bass)?(Synthtopia.com. “Hypnotique: Mistress of the Theremin”. Synthopia.com, http://www.synthtopia.com/interviews/Hypnotique.html.)
It is this aspect which is strangely enough left out in the Czech play; we do not see the epitome of a theremin player–a woman creating music out of nothing with gracious, sometimes nervously vibrating but always highly accurate movements of her arms, mostly bare arms, or close fitted sleeves so the fabric does not produce undesired irregularities in the sound. Touching the air–playing with the waves–this is what all the thereministes performed so exquisitely, enhancing the purely musical performance with a corporeal one which is close to ballet.
In Zelenka’s play, the two major female roles are treated in a way that differs considerably from the biographical facts we have about them as a part of Termen’ life. This distortion is striking if one bears in mind Zelenka’s deep-going analysis of the phenomen “Termen” and the obviously meticulous research conducted when studying his inventions and his psychology.
We certainly would enjoy seeing “Lucie Rosen” (pictured right)(The thereministe who was “singing with her fingers” (“1938 interview with Lucie Rosen” on http://thereminworld.com/sounds.asp).) playing the theremin–in Zelenka’s play she is just an arrogant socialite, a ready-made type from boulevard comedies.
Or we would have liked to see “Lavinia” dance on the Terpsitone (another of Termen’s inventions, similar to theremin, only that a dancer’s body movements turn into music).
In the “Termen” play, she is not a dancer but just the faithful servant of master Theremin; she does not even get married to him (as it was the case in reality). It is not quite clear why Zelenka reduced two of the three most important women in Termen’s American period (Rockmore does not appear in the play) to a simplistic black-and-white opposition of poor Lavinia and wealthy Lucy. Obviously Zelenka was not very interested in the visual and musical aspects of the theremin itself. If he had been, he would not have abstained from showing one of the existing thereministes playing and sparking the audience with this eerie and magical sound, instead of letting a men’s band perform in suits. In an interview he mentioned that a film about Termen would be rather expensive. But now it seems that Zelenka is working on its realization. I could not help imagining how a feature film about Termen by Zelenka will look like. Will he have more excitations and Good good good good vibrations?(Good good good good vibrations (oom bop bop) She’s na na… Na na na na na Na na Do do do do do. http://www.lyricsfreak.com/b/beach+boys/good+vibrations_20013757.html.) Or bad vibrations? In any case, it might have more electrification of the senses and less ironic distance towards the fate of this extraordinary person.”
Maybe Zelenka, staging the play in a small theatre, made a conscious decision not to involve our senses too heavily. Rather, by providing an accurate analytical portrait, he wanted to appeal to the minds and ethical judgment of the audience. The play produced in Prague differs greatly from Martin’s biographical film: no overwhelming visual effects, the music itself not being infected by the vibrating, oscillating history of the T-Vox and authorial viewpoint evaluating this biography. It is a rather intellectual piece showing no mercy for Termen’s moral shortcomings. This soberness in itself is quite a unique approach if one thinks of the growing Termen cult.
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:(You can look them up on http://theremin.ru/ under “Lev Termen”.) 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.(Using the environment or the human body as an interface instead of designing special devices (like the remote control) is a central field of interest in interface engineering today. Termen started with the theremin and a analogue data glove in the 30s, in the 60s and 70s he had worked on bio-acoustics: he managed to turn the body into an interface connecting between sound and the will/the thoughts of the user; he designed a polyphonic theremin where tones and timbres could be changed by eye movement which was controlled by a photo cell – this was the same principle as his bugs which used electromagnetic waves to transmit information (Galeyev 1995, p. 71). All these experiments anticipate the interfaceless today, often called “user interface engineering” (this means: taking the human user as a vantage point and not the machine in its clumsy materiality).)
The first bug “Golden Mouth”/“Zlatoust“)(For more pictures of the seal and the first bug go to http://www.spybusters.com/Great_Seal_Bug.html.) ……was placed in this seal, a present to the Americans(http://www.spybusters.com/Great_Seal_Bug.html) in 1945 by children from “Artek,” a Crimean pioneer camp.”(A. Sergeev, “Lev Termen: Spy, Scientist, Musician”. http://www.ruspred.ru/arh/02/33.php.) The wooden seal in the form of an eagle (codename “Zlatoust” which in Russian means “Golden Mouth”) contained Termen’s device and was hung up by the Americans in their embassy, in Harriman’s office. The usual bug hunting routine obviously failed to detect it since it was not a usual microphone but a “passive bug:”
Quivering with excitement, the technician extracted from the shattered depths of the seal a small device, not much larger than a pencil . . . capable of being activated by some sort of electronic ray from outside the building. When not activated, it was almost impossible to detect. . . . It represented, for that day, a fantastically advanced bit of applied electronics. (…) A radio beam was aimed at the antenna from a source outside the building. A sound that struck the diaphragm caused variations in the amount of space (and the capacitance) between it and the tuning post plate. These variations altered the charge on the antenna, creating modulations in the reflected radio beam. These were picked up and interpreted by the receiver.(http://www.spybusters.com/Great_Seal_Bug.html)
Not only its small size but also its simplicity made the device smart, considering spy technology in the 40s–by using a diaphragm with only an antenna for the bug itself and gaging it, if needed, with an electromagnetic wave:
The triumph of the Great Seal bug, which was hung over the desk of our Ambassador to Moscow, was its simplicity. It was simply a resonate chamber, with a flexible front wall that acted as a diaphragm, changing the dimensions of the chamber when sound waves struck it. It had no power pack of its own, no wires that could be discovered, no batteries to wear out. An ultra-high frequency signal beamed to it from a van parked near the building was reflected from the bug, after being modulated by sound waves from conversations striking the bug’s diaphragm. (…) The Great Seal features a bald eagle, beneath whose beak the Soviets had drilled holes to allow sound to reach the device. At first, Western experts were baffled as to how the device, which became known as the Thing, worked, because it had no batteries or electrical circuits.(http://www.spybusters.com/Great_Seal_Bug.html)
“Golden Mouth” for many years seemed undetectable, and even after its discovery in 1952 it continued to be an enigmatic “Thing from Another World.”(This is the title of the 1951 American film where a spacecraft is found in the Arctic; it contains a frozen alien to be revivified and thirsty for human blood. The Thing reflects the paranoid mood of that time. Let me note that the music for this film was written by Ukrainian-born Dimitri Tionkin and the theremin was played by Dr. Hoffman.) It took 6 months for the British MI5 (USA experts had asked them for help) to figure out how Termen’s bug worked. Then they copied this elegant and minimalist eavesdropping system for their own use.(Peter Wright of Britain’s MI5 discovered the principle by which it operated. MI5 later produced a copy of the device (codename SATYR) for use by both British and American intelligence.” http://www.spybusters.com/Great_Seal_Bug.html.)
Termen’s inventorial genius in the NKVD sharashka developed considerably: “the Thing” in hindsight seems far less sophisticated than Termen’s next invention–it was still an undetectable entity to be hunted down and removed.(James Bond, by the way, has to track the GoldenEye down in Russia (1995).) If “the Thing” was marked by a typical Termenesque style of understatement, displaying an engineering elegancy, only Termen’s second bug was a strike of pure genius.
His second bug was a bug that did not exist–it was onlythe idea of a bug. It made use of all the membranes in the building to be controlled, including window panes and even screens in the walls meant to block bugging. This somewhat ironic meta-bug, called the “Buran” (“Blizzard”),(Like the Soviet space shuttle constructed in the 70-80s, the largest project in the history of Soviet space exploration.) was based on the fact that human voices produce sound waves which cause movement in certain surfaces. The Buran enabled one to listen to conversations at a distance up to 500 meters via an interferometer using infrared light to pick up and transmit information from vibrating surfaces onto a photocell (e.g. in the opposite house).(E. Zhirnov, “The Red Termenator” in Kommersant VLAST. 2002 http://theremin.ru/termen/termenator.htm.) The Buran seems to have been the predecessor of laser microphones, still a novelty today and therefore mostly a prop of spy movies:
A laser microphone is an exotic application of laser technology. It consists of a laser beam that must be reflected off a glass window or another rigid surface that vibrates in sympathy with nearby sounds. This device essentially turns any vibrating surface near the source of sound into a microphone. It does this by measuring the distance between itself and the surface extremely accurately; the tiny fluctuations in this distance become the electrical signal of the sounds picked up. Laser microphones are new, very rare and expensive, and are most commonly portrayed in the movies as spying devices.(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microphone)
However, laser did not exist yet in 1945. Although Einstein laid the foundation for the invention of the laser in 1916, his theory was not materialized until the fifties (independently in the USA and the USSR).
The only problem with Termen’s beam was the question of decoding the “messages” and eliminating undesirable side noises–something that the experienced acoustician Termen became a specialist in after the war (as he admits in his interview with Martin).
Termen’s electronic eavesdropping devices did a considerable job in tapping both the American embassy (from 1945 until the fifties) and Stalin’s private apartment. For this groundbreaking work in 1947 he was secretly awarded the Stalin Prize (as Lydia Kavina tells us in Martin’s film, the planned “second class” was upgraded to “first class”—ironically enough it was Stalin personally who initiated this). This meant that Termen was released and offered a prestigious apartment in the CHEKA house on Leninsky prospect 30 in Moscow.
By creating the theremin antenna, which reacts to human bodies, Termen had already in 1919 invented something very useful: an alarm system which was instantly installed in Gokhran (the State Depository for Valuables, that is: diamonds and other precious stones, all valuables nationalized by the state after the revolution, church gold and silver items, etc.) and the Ermitage museum.(This invention also secured his income in the USA where Termen was more than just well off: he was a member of the millionaire’s club where meeting Rockefeller, Dupont and Ford (people he obviously also “spied” on – comparing himself to Richard Sorge; Galeyev 1995, p. 48). His main income seems to have flown from his Teletouch Corp. which sold alarm systems (based on the theremin antenna resp. a light sensor) to stores and jails like Sing Sing and Alcatraz. This means that Termen was the pioneer of electronic surveillance systems which operate by proximity control (automatic doors, taps etc.).) This was Termen’s speciality: To invent things and apparatuses which could be used in the realm of media and art but that also had a practical function, e.g. for the purposes and desires of the state and especially the secret service—or rather the other way around?
Termen himself called some of his inventions “bad things.” This may be true. Still Termen had enough fantasy to turn his singing radio lamps not only into a burglar alarm but also into a musical instrument, from which the “vibrations” would travel far beyond the world of music—a worthy echo of the complicated century Termen lived in.
The author would like to thank Erich Sargeant, James White and Adam Roberts, London, Steven Martin, N.Y., Wolfgang Weitlaner, Vienna and Alexander Smolyansky, Moscow/Berlin.
Click here for an interview with the film maker and dramatist Peter Zelenka, creator of the Czech play “Teremin”.