Léon Theremin, the man with good vibrations


Omaggio a Leon Theremin di Zoa Studio

Today, November 3, on the anniversary of his death, we tell you the story of Léon Theremin and the instrument that bears his name, the ancestor of modern electronic instruments.

A rather crazy story, between physics and espionage. But we like crazy stories, so we’re ready to tell it!

Who is Léon Theremin

Lev Sergeyevich Termen (Léon Theremin) was born – according to the Julian calendar in force at the time – on August 15, 1896 in St. Petersburg. In 1918, with the transition to the Gregorian calendar, this anniversary date was moved to August 28, which is the one celebrated today.

Lev Termen came from a noble French Huguenot family. His grandfather was a doctor at the Tsar’s court. His father, lawyer. Since he only had one sister, he received an excellent education.

Passionate about music, for many years he took cello lessons at the conservatory. Furthermore, from an early age Lev developed a passion for physics and chose to study this branch at university.

When Lev was 18, history accelerates: the First World War is followed by the Bolshevik revolution and the civil war. Despite his legacy, Termen enlisted in the Red Army. During the war, Termen oversaw the construction of a radio station in Saratov, in the south of the country.

In October 1919, as the White Russians approached, he ordered an evacuation before blowing up the station, “rather than leaving it to the enemy”. Meanwhile, Lev was studying the use of the human body as an electrical conductor and the ability to store charges. A kind of Victor Frankestein! Lev was intrigued by the natural ability of a person’s body standing near an electrical circuit to increase the capacity of the circuit itself.

The birth of Theremin – how it works

In the early 1920s Lev Termen built a device for measuring the density of a gas. He noticed that the movements of his hand near the circuit were interpreted as fluctuations in density, causing more or less high-pitched whistles. This immediately woke his cellist ear.

He developed this invention which led to the theremin, the first electrically powered instrument capable of generating sounds by means of electronic oscillators.

The principle is the following: the human body is an electrical conductor, virtually connected to the earth, which forms a capacitor with the antenna whose capacity is added to that of the circuit in such a way that the frequency of the latter is altered.

This variation is all the more important as the player brings their hand closer to the antenna, producing a sharper sound. Then, the curved antenna provides volume control: when the hand is close to the antenna, the capacitor attenuates the signal until it is cut off. On the other hand, a gradual move away creates a crescendo.

The theremin’s success was immediate.

Léon Theremin meets Lenin

In 1922, as electricity was becoming glamorous in Russia, Termen presented his instrument at a large fair. The invention caused enough noise that the engineer received an invitation from the chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic – Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, known as Lenin.

In an interview for a French television station, taken in 1989, Lev Termen himself recounted the scene as follows:

“He was charming and I was happy to meet him. I played and they cheered. Vladimir Ilich included. He had been watching me very carefully. I had played Glinka’s Skylark ‘, which he liked, and after a pause he asked me if he could play it on his own. He got up, walked over to the instrument, stretched out his hands. I took them to guide him. He started playing. He had a great ear and could hear where to move his hands. Halfway through the song, I thought he could have done it without my help. I took his hands off and he finished alone, with great success. He was very happy. ”

Lenin saw the theremin as an ideal propaganda medium for promoting electricity and showing Soviet supremacy. He gave Lev the necessary permissions to carry out an “agiprop tour” (agitation and propaganda tour) throughout the country. At these public events, Lev presents the theremin whose sound is amplified using the conical horns of gramophones, as well as other inventions. The instrument has 3 to 4 octaves, which allows Lev to draw heavily from his cellist repertoire.

From Lev Termen to Léon Theremin: moving to America

From 1926 Lev Termen promoted his instrument in Europe and also in the United States where he settled in 1927. This promotional tour was successful, but in reality it served as a cover for the GRU – the fourth command of the Red Army – to gather information on Technology and American industry.

Lev Termen is thus forced to accept espionage activities to justify his presence on American soil to the Soviet government. His story is reminiscent of Ayn Rand‘s in fact.

In 1929 the first theremin was released, called the “RCA theremin”. That year, the promotion of the tool was in full swing. Lev speaks of the theremin as “the instrument of emotions” and emphasizes its accessibility: “It is the easiest of all instruments to play! A child, an old lady, a talented musician, a blind man, everyone can learn to play. this extraordinary instrument with the same ease! It is destined to become the universal musical instrument; people will be able to play it as easily and naturally as they write or speak.

Unfortunately, this enthusiastic publicity turns out to be exaggerated and the general public will soon realize it. At that time, Termen introduced many people to the instrument and gave many concerts. Clara Rockmore, a young and talented violinist, becomes one of his greatest virtuosos. You develop a technique called “aerial fingering”, which allows you to play distinct notes, without skidding.

With Clara Rockmore, “the Jimi Hendrix of theremin”, Lev fell in love and he married her. And then he marries Lavinia Williams, dancer of a company with an incorrect name: the American Negro Ballet Company. Lavinia is black, Leon is white, and American society is three decades away from the end of racial segregation. The couple is getting married anyway.

Setback for Léon Theremin

All the doors that had been opened to him began to close, the financial sponsors stopped supporting him.

Léon could no longer live the same life, tax problems ensued and he was suspected of spying. Already in 1930, the setbacks for Lev Termen began: the popularity of the theremin decreased, sales decreased, instrument production was stopped, financial difficulties worsened.

Lev mysteriously disappears in 1938 and returns to Russia where he experiences the difficulties of the concentration camps and forced labor in Kolyma.

Distraught, Lavinia Williams said the Russians had kidnapped her husband. What is known is that on his return the inventor was sent to the Magadan gulag, in Siberia, on the shores of the Sea of ​​Okhotsk. “Stalin imprisoned all the great scientists. He saw thinkers as threats. There was a mock trial and Theremin was convicted of anti-Soviet propaganda.

When the Second World War broke out, the regime asked the intellectuals still alive to help the motherland. Termen is sent to a charachka, a prison equipped with laboratories, in less harsh conditions than the gulag. And when the conflict ended, the freed engineer joined the KGB. Without being sure you have a choice. At the same time, in the United States, no one knows where Termen went. A newspaper even went so far as to report the news of his death.

The recovery, the theremin moog and the last few years

Rehabilitated in 1956, he chose to continue working for the government secret services and developed wiretapping and espionage devices. In his spare time he reconstructs some of his instruments and inventions, but electronic music is banned by the regime and his instruments are destroyed several times.

Interest in the theremin is reborn thanks to Miklos Roza’s music for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound film. The Theremin becomes the new Hollywood sound to feature paranoia, anguish, mystery and paranormal phenomena of science fiction.

In 1949, Robert Moog, an electronics enthusiast teenager, built his first theremin and wrote an article about it in a hobbyist magazine. The success was such that at the age of 19 Robert Moog created his company -Moog Music- to build and sell theremin in kits.

Later in the 1970s, his company gave birth to the first synthesizers, including the famous Mini Moog. Even today, Moog’s theremins and synthesizers remain a benchmark. In the late 1960s, a New York Times reporter found Lev and ran an article about him: the Western world later learned that he was not dead.

This article allows Lev to reconnect with his past and his old acquaintances. He finally understands the impact of his inventions on electronic music through an invitation to the 1989 International Electronic Music Festival in Bourges and the 1990 Electronic Music Festival in Stockholm.

In 1989, a friend of his, Sergei Zorin, takes him back, so he remembers some parts of his life. In 1991, Lev went to the United States for a Steve Martin documentary on the theremin. Two years later, on November 3, Lev died in Moscow at the age of 97. He was buried in the Kuncevskoye cemetery in Moscow.

The legacy of Léon Theremin

But what did Léon Theremin really leave us? It is often forgotten that modern music owes its existence to engineers as well as artists, or to hybrids like Mr Les Paul. Of all the strange instruments made at the dawn of electronic music, the theremin, invented a century ago, is the one that still amazes the most today.

Because it never had time to shine, despite his presence on the tracks of the Beach Boys (Good Vibrations). The theremin also appeared on two tracks of theRolling Stones: the very rock “Please Go Home” on the album Between The Buttons, then the psychedelic journey “2000 Light Years From Home”, published on Their Satanic Majesties Request.

Two years later,  Led Zeppelin fit the theremin on another cult track , “Whole Lotta Love”. Jimmy Page plays it on stage.

Then? Not much more. The theremin will never again be used for titles of this magnitude except for Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

The theremin fell into oblivion because it was too difficult to play. Synthesized sounds are preferred, and the music takes an electronic turn. The use of the theremin in so-called popular music becomes episodic. Fortunately, there are still some episodes today. We mention Tim Burton, who uses the theremin in films such as Ed Wood, Mars Attacks and The Chocolate Factory. Or, let’s play at home with the Italian artist Megahertz.

Or we can thank Sheldon Cooper, who plays the theremin in the fourth season of The Big Bang Theory.

A nerdy instrument. But no matter how detailed and scientific he works, the thing that still fascinates about the theremin is that a part of us persists and will always persist in seeing something magical in his music played in the void.



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