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SPECIAL SECTION: Leon Theremin, Pioneer of Electronic Art




Light and Shadows of a Great Life: In Commemoration of the One-Hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of Leon Theremin, Pioneer of Electronic Art



Bulat M. Galeyev




Let the sun shine forever, let me be forever!

---Russian children's song of the Soviet epoch [1].



Five years have passed since Leonardo published my article devoted to the work of Leon Theremin [2], inventor of what may have been the world's first electronic musical instrument, the theremin. With its surprising ability to produce sounds from the ether at the wave of a hand, this unusual instrument is perceived as miraculous even today. Theremin authored many other inventions in the field of electronic art, including a television set and devices for combining music and light.


It is not necessary to duplicate my previous article on Theremin's work or, for that matter, to duplicate what appears in the following section. Instead, I would like to devote this introduction to another theme: some aspects of the unusual life of the great inventor.


When my previous article was published in Leonardo, Theremin was "only" 95 years old. Nevertheless, he was still working actively and we, his colleagues, were amazed by the childlike clarity of his vision and the lucidity of his mind. Theremin had begun to make appearances in the West after many years of obscurity, visiting France, for example, in 1989, and traveling to the United States 2 years later. Many people living in the West did not know or believe that he was still alive, and it was with surprise that they were rediscovering not only the phenomenal, ethereal music of the theremin, but also the miraculous existence of Theremin himself.


It was around this time that I visited the Netherlands. Franz Evers, of the Hague Koninslijk Conservatory, asked me to bring photographs of Theremin for the Conservatory's archive on my next visit. I feigned naivete and asked if he would prefer that I bring Theremin himself. The reaction was general surprise and excitement. In early 1993, Theremin and I visited the Hague [3], where he impressed an audience at the Conservatory with his performance on the theremin. I was moved by the song he played there---"Let the Sun Shine Forever, Let Me Be Forever!"---a children's melody that was well known in the former Soviet Union. Theremin died that autumn.


I found myself writing about him for Leonardo once again, but this time for an in memoriam article [4]. Theremin did not quite live to see his one-hundredth birthday, although he was busy investigating problems of longevity and immortality during the last years of his life. It even seemed to us, his friends, that he had finally found the legendary fountain of youth. We who believed he was able to solve any problem were ready to believe that his longevity would be unlimited when we saw his customary cheerful smile. Alas, miracles are impossible.


It so happened that the British Broadcasting Company televised the film Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, by Steven Martin, two days before Theremin's death. The film included scenes from Theremin's 1991 visit to the United States, and made tasteful use of archival footage of Theremin taken from newsreels dating from 1928--1938, when Theremin lived in America. Successful screenings in the United States, Europe and Japan fostered a surge of interest in the electronic art pioneer and his best-known invention, leading, for example, to the foundation of the Theremin Enthusiasts Club International (TECI), whose members refer to themselves (albeit humorously) as "theremaniacs" [5]. Interest in the theremin revived on the part of both musicians and engineers.


This revival of interest, however, can be traced back even earlier, to the last years of Theremin's life and his final visits to the West. In 1992, for example, Albert Vincent Glinsky completed a thesis entitled "The Theremin in the Emergence of Electronic Music" [6] at New York University. In the former Soviet Union, Theremin began to make presentations at various conferences and symposia during the last 10 years of his life, appearing with his daughter, Natalia, who performed on the theremin alongside her father [7,8]. Theremin's niece, professional thereminist Lydia Kavina, began making successful concert tours in Europe and the United States in the mid-1980s [9]. There was an increase in the production of audio recordings of theremin music, including many pieces composed specifically for the instrument. The Theremin Center was founded in Moscow in 1992 [10], and other electronic music studios in Russia also began taking an active part in developing Theremin's ideas (for further details on such studios, see Music/Science Forum in the section itself). In Russia, sensational reports on previously unknown pages of Theremin's life began to be published in the late 1980s and continue to appear at the time of writing. My own book, Soviet Faust [11], which was published in Russian in 1995, is based on those materials and on personal conversations I had with Theremin (I had been unable to publicize these conversations earlier). If Steven Martin's film is a "view from the United States," then my book is a "view from Russia." Combined, these two views provide a kind of Leon Theremin "stereo portrait."


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 [12]---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.


In 1928, following triumphant tours of Europe and the Soviet Union with his "radio music" (often combined with light and scents [13]), Theremin was sent to the United States on a business trip. His task was double. Its first, legitimate component was to engage in creative work and start a business selling his inventions. Its second, covert side was handed down from the Soviet secret services: he was to obtain information on U.S. innovations in military technology and to find out which side the United States would take in the event of world war. Theremin was convinced that he caused no harm to the country that he had come to like and that seemed to appreciate him as well. It is difficult to find a field of activity that he was not engaged in while he lived in the United States. He invented a new model of theremin called the "terpsitone," which generated sound not merely in response to the movement of the hand, but from the dancing movement of the whole body. He also created new kinds of alarm systems that would be responsive to viewers' actions. And behind the scenes, he met secretly with Soviet secret service agents. 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. In any case, one should bear in mind that he gave different versions of some episodes in various interviews over the years, perhaps as a result of his age but doubtlessly due to the degree of discretion he was allowed. Theremin was a "man of legend," and all appearances seem to indicate that many episodes of his life will remain legends forever.


What is certain is that Theremin found himself in prison, then in prison camp, then in prison-type top-secret scientific and research institutes after his return to the Soviet Union. Incredibly, while still in prison, Theremin was granted the most prestigious Soviet scientific award, the First Class Stalin Prize (the Soviet analogue of the Nobel Prize) in 1947. He was rewarded for having created the "Buran" bugging system, which was designed for tactful, remote, contact-free surveillance of American and French embassies by means of detecting window-glass vibrations from distances of 300--500 m. (Recent reports in Russia have revealed that Beria, former head of the KGB, used Theremin's inventions to listen in on Stalin himself. Theremin preserved the results---unique magnetic-tape recordings of Stalin's voice---for many years, keeping them in his own home until they finally crumbled to dust with age [14].)


Equally successful was another of his devices, this one produced in 1945. That year, pioneers (Soviet boy scouts) in red neckerchiefs solemnly presented a gilded eagle, emblem of the United States, to American ambassador A. Garriman. The eagle was to hang on the wall of the ambassador's room for several years while a little, special "gift" from Theremin---a "bug"---functioned inside it. Because it functioned without cables or batteries, even a special team of American technicians imported from the United States by officials of the American embassy in Russia could not find it for a long time. It was not until 1960 that the astounded Americans decided to discuss what they had found in the 1950s, demonstrating the listening device at a United Nations Security Council session. It was Theremin's second great benefit performance in the United States, the first being his triumphant concert at Carnegie Hall in 1929. (It was only recently that this information was published in the Russian press [15]).


I asked Theremin the same question many times: "Everything you have done is very interesting. But the fact is that the KGB could use the devices you created to monitor ordinary people such as me. Did you ever think about this?" His answer never failed to shock me: "I didn't care. My task was to reduce noise when operating the device."


Little information is available concerning the 20 years of Theremin's life subsequent to 1947. Unbelievable as it may seem, he returned voluntarily to the KGB after his release in 1947, continuing to work for them until 1966. Theremin apparently felt himself already comfortless upon becoming free. After I met him in the 1970s and we became friends, I asked him, "What were you busy with all that time?" He evasively answered, "I made various useful things." However, he also said that he succeeded in restoring a theremin and arranging electronic music concerts for secret servicemen at Lubianka [16] while he was working there.


Our planet is probably not completely sane if the military industry can succeed in transforming an artist into a James Bond and a musical instrument into an alarm system. I ask the reader to make an allowance for Theremin, whose suffering far outweighed his guilt. But while we might pity him, one could also envy Theremin for the happiness he attained in his fantastically impossible life.


Upon publishing my first article in Leonardo 20 years ago, Frank Malina warned me that there should be "no politics" in his journal. But how can we be rid of politically charged subjects in the case of Theremin, whose life and creativity themselves were a mixture of war and peace, music and the KGB, love and politics? How should we explain, for example, the following fact of his curriculum vitae? 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.


Many scientists faced Faustian problems in the twentieth century. Oppenheimer and Sakharov settled these problems in their own ways. Leon Theremin---musician, physicist, inventor, spy and scientist for the KGB---chose his own way, although it was a risky one, and succeeded at making "various useful things" throughout his long life. It was not until after his death that I came to understand that it was his favorite work---making "useful things"---that served as a fountain of youth for him, helping him live for nearly a century under incredible conditions. His life remains a legend, an enigma. Theremin's forced service to the Soviet Union will be forgotten, but history will preserve his clear gaze, his indefatigable desire to solve insoluble problems and, most certainly, the theremin, which will be known not only as the original electronic instrument, but also as a graceful and elegant symbol of the emergence of electronic art.


In the final scene of Goethe's Faust, Faust must give his soul to Mephistopheles according to their agreement. But Goethe made a different decision, instructing angels to sing: "This worthy member of the spirit world is rescued from the devil: for him whose striving never ceases we can provide redemption; and if a higher love as well has shown an interest in him, the hosts of heaven come and greet him with a cordial welcome" [17]. The result was that angels succeeded in taking the "immortal part of Faust's soul" and carrying it away from under Mephisto's very nose. I would like to believe that if angels exist, they also carried away the "immortal part of the soul" of our Soviet Faust---perhaps even together with his Communist party card and the description of his "Cathode Electromusical Instrument."


It is this very description of the "Cathode Electromusical Instrument," written by Theremin himself, that opens our special section. This document is followed by articles by two of Theremin's relatives: his niece Natalia Nesturkh, who presents a survey of the Soviet followers of Theremin, and her daughter Lydia Kavina, a professional thereminist who discusses her own experiences with the instrument. A Music/Science Forum section features short texts on the development and propagation of Theremin's ideas in the West and in Russia, including information on various Russian groups practicing electronic music and light-music. There are reviews of my book on Theremin; A. Glinsky's 1992 thesis; Steven Martin's film; a demonstration video by Robert Moog; and recently published Russian books on electronic and computer music. Two bibliographies and a discography will be of special interest to those wishing to explore the subject further.



Translated by Vladimir Chudnovsky.




Acknowledgments

I am very grateful to the editors of Leonardo for supporting our initiative to publish this jubilee Theremin special section, and especially to Grace Sullivan for her patient work with us. My deep thanks to our translator, my colleague Vladimir Chudnovsky, who translated many of the section materials and all of the correspondence with authors and the Leonardo editorial staff. And, indeed, my best thanks to Kazan State University Computing Center, which provided us with free e-mail access, without which no cooperation with Leonardo would be possible.

Editor's Note

Lev Sergeyevich Termen changed his name to Leon Theremin when he came to the United States in 1928. The instrument known in Russia as the "termenvox" gained recognition in the U.S. as the "theremin." Previous theremin-related publications in Leonardo have used both styles of referring to the instrument and the inventor, tending toward adopting the Americanized versions of the names as the instrument became more well known in the United States. Russians Lydia Kavina and Natalia Nesturkh, members of Theremin's extended family and contributors to this special section, prefer to use "theremin" in order to restore the trace of the inventor's French heritage. Unlike their American counterparts, however, their terms blend the French version of the given name with the Russian idiom that provided the first linguistic home for both inventor and instrument; thus, they refer to "Lev Theremin" and the "thereminvox."

For simplicity and consistency's sake, we have chosen to even out these subtle differences and make the usage consistent throughout most (if not entirely all) of this special section. Not surprisingly, given the fact that we are publishing in English, the anglicized versions of the names have prevailed; however, we would like to draw the reader's attention to the fact that this shift has occurred rather than passing it off as another incidental cultural occlusion. It is our hope that, despite the Americanization of names, no points of view or versions of events will have been Americanized for publication here.



References and Notes








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