Notes 58.2 (2001) 381-382
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Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage
Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage. By Albert Glinsky. (Music in American Life.) Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000. [xvi, 403 p. ISBN 0-252-02582-2. $34.95.]
Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the Russian scientist and inventor, was born in 1896 and died in 1993. Who was he? Why should we care about his work? And why, until fairly recently, has knowledge of his accomplishments been primarily the province of those in the field of electronic and computer music? Albert Glinsky, composer and associate professor of music at Mercyhurst College, provides answers to such questions in Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage, a compelling biography whose scope goes far beyond musical concerns alone.
Leon Theremin, as he is known in the United States, was among the first to build expressive electronic musical instruments. To gauge his considerable influence on twentieth-century musical practice, consider that his instruments have been heard in diverse contexts, both "low" and "high," including "Good Vibrations" by the Beach Boys, Ecuatorial by Edgard Varèse, and Final Alice by David Del Tredici. They have been featured in film scores, such as Miklos Rozsa's for Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock) and The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder) and Bernard Herrmann's for The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise). And they have been seen on television in broadcasts of Art Linkletter's House Party, Truth or Consequences, The Steve Allen Show, and The Johnny Carson Show.
Performers play Theremin's best-known instrument, called the "etherphone" and later the "theremin," by moving their hands in the air, one on the horizontal plane and the other on the vertical. The position of the hands relative to the antennas controls pitch and volume. This approach, in which the performer does not actually touch a physical surface, is stunning in its simplicity, provocative in its effect, and prescient in its vision.
With the resurgence of interest in Theremin in the last decade, he has become something of a cult figure. Numerous Web sites now provide information on all things related to him. Other sites sell build-it-yourself theremin kits. Theremins and related memorabilia can be found on the eBay Web site (www.ebay.com). In 1993, Steven M. Martin's award-winning documentary film about the inventor was shown in Britain on the BBC's Channel 4 (Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey [Orion Home Video, 1995]).
Though much has been written about Theremin in the popular press and scholarly articles have described and analyzed his accomplishments, Glinsky's meticulously researched book (based on his doctoral dissertation, "The Theremin in the Emergence of Electronic Music" [New York University, 1992]) is the first comprehensive study that covers the whole of Theremin's life and work. As told by Glinsky, Theremin's story is much more than the invention of innovative musical instruments.
Glinsky explains that Theremin began his career as a researcher shortly after the Russian Revolution. At that time, he worked essentially at the pleasure of the Bolshevik government to see how the human body could be used as a conduit for electricity. His first major project, a wireless alarm system that he called the "radio watchman" (p. 23), led to the invention of the etherphone, which he subsequently demonstrated to Lenin. Electricity, because of both its practical and its propaganda value, was an important component in Lenin's plans for the Soviet Union. Thus, Theremin's interests aligned propitiously with Lenin's political agenda.
With the government support and sponsorship that derived from his successful demonstration to Lenin, Theremin toured Russia, Germany, and France. He then came to New York City in 1928 and stayed for the next ten years. Publicly, his mission was to promote the theremin to domestic and international markets. In reality, his charge, as for virtually every traveling Soviet scientist in the twentieth century, was to engage in industrial espionage.
By emphasizing the intersections of creativity, culture, and politics in Theremin's life and work across the twentieth century, [End Page 381] Glinsky provides answers to broad and fascinating questions. For...