Theremin (real name, Termen Leon)
Theremin (real name, Termen Leon)
Theremin (real name, Termen Leon), (pronounced in Russian with the accent on the last syllable; Gallicized as Theremin; Anglicized as Theremin, with the accent on the first syllable), Russian inventor of the space-controlled electronic instrument that bears his name; b. St. Petersburg, Aug. 15, 1896; d. Moscow, Nov. 3, 1993. He studied physics and astronomy at the Univ. of St. Petersburg; also cello and theory. He continued his studies in physics at the Petrograd Physico-Technical Inst.; in 1919 he became director of its Laboratory of Electrical Oscillators. On Aug. 5, 1920, he gave a demonstration there of his Aetherophone, which was the prototype of the Thereminovox; also gave a special demonstration of it for Lenin, who at the time was convinced that the electrification of Russia would ensure the success of communism. In 1927 he demonstrated his new instruments in Germany, France, and the U.S., where, on Feb. 28, 1928, he obtained a patent for the Thereminovox. On April 29, 1930, at Carnegie Hall in N.Y., he presented a concert with an ensemble of 10 of his instruments, also introducing a space-controlled synthesis of color and music. On April 1, 1932, in the same hall, he introduced the first electrical sym. orch., conducted by Stoessel and including Theremin fingerboard and keyboard instruments. He also invented the Rhythmicon, for playing different rhythms simultaneously or separately (introduced by Henry Cowell), and an automatic musical instrument for playing directly from specially written musical scores (constructed for Percy Grainger). With the theorist Joseph Schillinger, Theremin established an acoustical laboratory in N.Y.; also formed numerous scientific and artistic associations, among them Albert Einstein, who was himself an amateur violinist. Einstein was fascinated by the relationships between music, color, and geometric and stereometric figures; Theremin provided him a work space to study these geometries, but he himself took no further interest in these correlations, seeing himself “not as a theorist, but as an inventor/’ More to Theremin’s point were experiments made by Stokowski, who tried to effect an increase in sonority among certain instrumental groups in the Philadelphia Orch., particularly in the double basses. These experiments had to be abandoned, however, when the players complained of deleterious effects upon their abdominal muscles, which they attributed to the electronic sound waves produced by the Thereminovox. In 1938 Theremin decided to return to Russia. He soon had difficulties with the Soviet government, which was suspicious of his foreign contacts. He was convicted of anti-Soviet propaganda and was imprisoned for 7 years in Magadan, Siberia. During his imprisonment, he did research for the Soviet government. His invention of a miniature electronic eavesdropping instrument led to a secret award of the Stalin Prize and his release. In subsequent years, he was active in research for the KGB. In 1964 he became a prof, of acoustics at the Moscow Cons. After Harold C. Schonberg wrote an article on him for the N.Y. Times in 1967, Theremin lost his professorship due to the unwanted publicity. He later worked in an electronics institute in Moscow. With the advent of new liberal policies in the U.S.S.R., he was able to travel abroad, appearing in Paris and in Stockholm in 1989. Among his American students from the 1930s, he especially commended Clara Rockmore, a well-known Thereminist. His career was surveyed in Steven M. Martin’s British television documentary “The Electronic Odyssey of Leon Theremin” (1993).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire