Even though few listeners are likely to recognize its name, almost everyone has at one time or another heard an electronic musical instrument known to the cognoscenti as the theremin (pronounced “THAIR-uh-min” in the English-speaking world). The Beach Boys’ 1966 hit song “Good Vibrations” utilized the instrument to happy, loopy effect. Two decades earlier Miklos Rozsa’s soundtrack to the Alfred Hitchcock film Spellbound (1945) had featured the theremin to suggest an undercurrent of paranoia. Since then countless B-grade movies have relied on the theremin’s unearthly sound to establish an atmosphere of alien or supernatural menace.
The theremin takes its name from Russian inventor Leon Theremin (who preferred the Russian pronunciation of his name, “tair-MEN”). Theremin’s genius led him to design and perfect a number of inventions, musical and otherwise, but it would also place him—as a citizen of what became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1917—in an extraordinarily precarious position. The twists and turns of Theremin’s long life mirror the history of the twentieth century, and the details of that life are explored for the first time by composer and music professor Albert Glinsky.
Leon Theremin (or Lev Sergeyevich Termen, as he was known in his mother country) was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1896. Young Leon was precocious, reading the encyclopedia at the age of three and repairing watches at seven. He began playing the piano at age five and the cello four years later, realizing even then that “there was a gap between music itself and its mechanical production.” At a slightly older age Theremin began experimenting with magnetism and electricity.
Theremin’s gifts marked him out in school, and as a result he was allowed to attend the lectures mounted by rising physics star Abram Fedorovich Ioffe in defense of his thesis and dissertation. Ioffe was so impressed with Theremin that he took him on as a protégé, a move that probably saved the student’s life. When Theremin was drafted a few years later to fight in the First World War for the Tsar, his status and knowledge kept him out of the front lines, and he was instead assigned to an engineering school.
The first stages of Theremin’s scientific and technical career found him in the forefront of radio and television (“distance vision”) design. One of the most telling sections of Glinsky’s biography describes how Theremin’s inventions were pressed into the service of the new Soviet state for official communication and surveillance, while in the West such developments were marketed to the very proletariat that the Soviets ostensibly championed. For his efforts Theremin was hailed as “the Russian Edison,” but he would eventually pay a high price for the bargain he had made with his masters.
Theremin’s most important invention, and the one for which he is remembered, was the musical instrument eventually named after him. The theremin, which is the only musical instrument played without being touched, operates thanks to several principles of electronics. The first of these is heterodyning, which dictates that any two frequencies will combine to produce a third, lower, frequency equal to the difference between the original two. In the case of the theremin, one oscillator (or radio-frequency generator) produces a set frequency. Another oscillator, attached to an antenna, produces a frequency that varies as the player moves his or her hand in relation to the antenna—in technical terms, adding capacity or capacitance to the oscillator. The two original frequencies being generated lie in the radio spectrum, far beyond the range of human hearing, yet the resulting pitch is audible. A second antenna, mounted to a right angle to the first, allows the player to alter the volume—as conveyed by a loudspeaker—with his or her other hand.
Theremin initially called his invention the “etherphone,” a reference to the medium—ether—that some scientists still believed filled space and conducted electromagnetic waves.
Theremin demonstrated his new invention to Abram Ioffe in October, 1920, and held a small recital of familiar classical tunes in November. Sensing a propaganda...
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