1993: Leon Theremin dies in Moscow. The Russian-born inventor leaves behind a legacy that touches several technical and creative disciplines.
During his 97 years, Theremin left his indelible mark on the fields of science, radio and television broadcasting, espionage, electromagnetic circuitry design and, most famously, music.
The electronic instrument of his design which also bears his name — by all accounts the first electronic musical instrument — is notable for its whooping and sliding high-pitched squeal. The theremin has influenced popular music, classical music, television and film soundtracks, and the musical avant-garde.
Leon Theremin got started early. He first experimented with electronics and Tesla coils as a preteen. After a stint as a military radio engineer during World War I and the Russian Civil War, he went to work in 1920 with his academic mentor, experimental physicist Abram Fedorovich Ioffe, at the Physical Technical Institute in his hometown of St. Petersburg.
It was there he began to branch out, working with X-rays, high-frequency oscillators and gas-filled tubes. In one experiment, he attached a small speaker to a charged antenna and discovered that when he waved his hand in and out of the electrical field, the speaker emitted a tone. The pitch would change, rising as he moved his hand closer and dropping as he moved it farther away.
Harnessing his childhood training as a cellist, Theremin soon mastered a few simple melodies. He was able to play with a vibrato effect by quickly shaking his hand in the air, and he added a second antenna to his invention to control the master volume. He named it the “etherphone” in reference to its ghost-like, otherworldy timbre. But soon enough, everyone just began calling it the theremin.
His invention was mysterious-looking to begin with — just a simple wooden box with two antennas sticking out of it. But its funkiness was compounded by the fact that you never actually touched it. It was played by moving the hands closer to and farther away from the two antennas, giving the visual effect of the performer “playing the air.”
“I conceived of an instrument that would create sound without using any mechanical energy, like the conductor of an orchestra,” Theremin told musicologist Olivia Mattis in 1989. “The orchestra plays mechanically, using mechanical energy; the conductor just moves his hands, and his movements have an effect on the music artistry.”
The sound it produced — a whistle-like, unbroken buzz capable of connecting any two pitches with an inhuman glissando — was like nothing else.
By the end of 1920, Theremin was performing concerts in the Soviet Union. He took a portable theremin on a concert tour of Europe in 1927.
He then traveled to New York, where he was a sensation. Theremin played with the New York Philharmonic and led an all-theremin ensemble at Carnegie Hall. He partnered with RCA, which began commercially producing theremins in the late 1920s.
After a few years in the States, Theremin suddenly returned to the Soviet Union. He claimed it was for personal and financial reasons. Others contend he was kidnapped by the Soviets.
Either way, he was imprisoned and put to work building listening devices for gathering government intelligence. He labored in government labs for three decades, during which time he says he was treated well, paid handsomely and given his own apartment. In the 1940s and ’50s, he invented and built several long-range microphones and other covert listening devices, including the famous “Thing.”
The Thing, completed in 1952, was a passive listening device. It had a condenser mike and an antenna, but no power supply, wires, batteries or circuitry that would expose it as an electrical device. Instead, it was activated remotely by beaming a radio signal at it from a nearby transmitter. By reading the radio waves that were bounced back, the Soviets could eavesdrop on any conversations being held near the Thing.
The bug was fitted inside a wooden box decorated with a carving of the Great Seal of the United States and presented as a gift to the U.S. ambassador in Moscow. He hung it on the wall of his office, and the Soviets were able to listen in on his meetings covertly from a nearby van or the building next door.
This went on for years until it was discovered by a British intelligence officer who accidentally picked up the Soviets’ beamed waves and heard voices speaking American English on his radio.
In addition to being one of the earliest and most ingenious bugs ever planted in the modern era, Theremin’s Thing and its passive design also served as the starting point for the technology used today in RFID chips.
Theremin is responsible for some other influential inventions, like the technique of using interlaced scan lines to produce a cleaner television picture, which he first demonstrated in the 1920s. Interlacing is still used in some TVs, though it is rapidly losing favor to the progressive-scanning techniques on the latest high-def displays.
But his eerie-sounding wooden box endures as his most famous invention.
Well-known theremin virtuosos include Clara Rockmore, a child prodigy who began perfecting her technique under the inventor himself in the 1920s. Classically trained, she made a career out of her unmatched ability to play delicate, complicated passages on the theremin with absolute perfection. She died in 1998.
Then there was Robert Moog, the inventor and creator of the Moog synthesizer, who claims Theremin as his mentor and the greatest influence on his life’s work.
Modern composers Dmitri Shostakovich, Charles Ives and Edgar Varese have all written for the theremin. Its freaky tones can be heard on sci-fi film soundtracks like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin kept a simplified theremin onstage, often switching it on and wailing away for minutes at a time, during the band’s extended versions of “Whole Lotta Love.”
But the theremin’s greatest popularizer — hands down — was Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. The songwriter was fascinated by the instrument, and he placed its otherworldly, high-pitched voice front and center on “Good Vibrations,” his most famous composition. The main melody line in the song is played on the theremin, over and over and over again, modulating upwards as the song rolls through its eccentric chord changes.
Hear “Good Vibrations” once, and the sweeping, electronic line gets lodged in your head. The song was the Beach Boys’ first million-selling No. 1 hit (topping the charts on both sides of the pond at the end of 1966), no doubt thanks to Theremin’s invention.
You’re already whistling it, aren’t you?
Videos: 1) Leon Theremin
2) Clara Rockmore
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