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Technology and Culture 42.4 (2001) 802-803
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Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage
Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage. By Albert Glinsky. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000. Pp. xvi+403. $34.95.
Lev Sergeyevich Termen (1896-1993), who in the United States called himself Leon Theremin, was already a legend in his own lifetime. As the inventor of the theremin, the only musical instrument that is played without being touched, he is perhaps the most important pioneer of electronic music. He inspired Robert Moog to develop his influential electronic synthesizer. But Termen was a prolific inventor in other areas as well, developing a host of devices for surveillance. Little was known of him in the West before Steven M. Martin's documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey premiered in 1993. Bulat Galeyev had published various articles on Termen by then, and his Soviet Faust came out in Russian in 1995. But Albert Glinsky's well-researched and well-written biography, based on a 1992 Ph.D. thesis, manages to correct several myths in the literature on Termen, particularly the belief, held by Martin and others, that Soviet agents kidnapped him in 1938 and brought him to the Soviet Union by force. Glinsky makes clear that in the second half of the 1930s Termen had serious problems. He was in financial straits, his marriage to the African-American ballerina Lavinia Williams was frowned upon by his acquaintances in New York, his visa extensions were expiring, and he was homesick. He therefore left for the Soviet Union on his own free will.
Glinsky tells the extraordinary story of Termen's life in all its available details. After studying physics and astronomy at St. Petersburg University, he invented his theremin, an eerie and difficult electroacoustic musical instrument based on the principle of heterodyne radio reception. It caused a sensation. Lenin sent Termen on a propaganda tour. In 1927 he performed in various European cities and in New York, extending his stay there until 1938. Apart from playing his theremin and teaching others to play it, Termen developed a radio watchman, a capacitance alarm system that produced a whistle over headphones when anyone entered the area under surveillance, as well as a "television" device for surveillance. While in the United States he passed data on technology to the Soviet intelligence services.
Yet when he returned to the Soviet Union in 1938 he received an unfriendly welcome: NKVD agents arrested him and he was sentenced to eight years in a labor camp because of alleged "counterrevolutionary activities." But the Soviet authorities soon found that he was more useful in developing military technology. He worked on instrumentation for a long-range high-altitude bomber as part of a group headed by the eminent Soviet aircraft designer A. N. Tupolev, and on a radio-controlled gunpowder rocket to counter German tanks with Tupolev and S. P. Korolev, future head of the Soviet space program. His best-known feats were the design of a bugging [End Page 802] device hidden in the great seal in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and the "Buran," another eavesdropping device, for which he received the Stalin Prize for outstanding achievements in science and technology.
Glinsky skillfully blends aspects of the history of technology, musical history, and political history, making good use of published and aural sources. Sometimes, however, he replaces missing information in the sources with his own assumptions. And his long literal quotations from journals and newspapers are somewhat repetitive. As other authors had already found out, obtaining information from Termen himself was difficult. Partly because of his failing memory, he gave differing accounts of the same event and wedded fantasy and reality. He did not remember what he did not want to remember or else remembered what he only wished had happened. Hence the utility of his own accounts is limited. Yet despite difficulties that he could not remedy, Glinsky has written a significant and revealing book on the life of an extraordinary person in a strange world.
Dr. Braun is professor of modern social, economic, and...