- Albert Glinsky: Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage
Albert Glinsky's captivating biography of Leon Theremin sheds light on the myriad contradictions and unraveling complexities inherent in a long life inexorably dedicated to electronic invention and sound. It also raises a number of incisive questions, one of the most overarching being how the inventor's devotion survived and thrived amid the precariously ambiguous allegiances he created within both the Soviet and non-Soviet worlds. Through technological innovations encompassing sound and its indirect control by [End Page 84] humans (including both musical instruments and intelligence devices), we are drawn into a study of cultural distinction—the diverse receptions of these innovations alternately cast them as magical and as maniacal, and in some respects (particularly in the early years of the 20th century) as species of white and black magic.
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Theremin was born Lev Sergeyevich Termen (in 1896, St. Petersburg, Russia), embodying an independence of mind and spirit that Mr. Glinsky has traced to the inventor's 12th-century French Albigensian heritage. Notions of ascetic "purity" held by this group of people, and their atheistic belief only in "the constant struggle between good and evil," are oddly relevant as one attempts to fathom the inventor's responses to his encounters with constantly twisting fates over the course of his career.
A detailed and often fierce portrait is painted of the Russia and developing Soviet Union that surrounded Theremin's earliest activities, which included training in music as well as in science. The advent of the First World War marked a decisive shift in the inventor's life, moving him from initial plans for work in experimental physics and mathematics (specifically investigations of atomic and molecular structures) into electronics and radio research as an engineer within Lenin's Bolshevik movement.
One of his earliest projects entailed work with the capacitance of the human body, whose proximity to an electrical circuit can cause changes in its signal output. He first used this phenomena in constructing an invisible burglar alarm, which he called the "radio watchman." Soon following, he observed the effects of the proximity of his hand on the circuitry of a device that used variations in audible pitch frequencies to register changes in the density of gases. These experiments, combined with an independently developed method of creating heterodyning phenomena (in which the combination of two frequencies produces a third frequency) led directly to the fabrication of the musical instrument Theremin originally called the Etherphone, known later simply as the Theremin.
An intersecting image of the early 20th-century's emerging radio and electronics technologies slices through Mr. Glinsky's references to the political and social climate of that time, contextualizing Theremin within a set of unstable political balances. During the following year (1921), a demonstration was given at the Kremlin for Lenin, and the Ether-phone (and Theremin himself) was on its way to becoming a vehicle for electricity propaganda, as well as a distracting entertainment behind which intelligence concerning Western scientific developments could be gathered. The Etherphone was also, of course, a first product of the inventor's passionate involvement with electronics and sound: "I realized there was a gap between music itself and its mechanical production, and I wanted to unite both of them."
With these perhaps already conflicting plans, Theremin arrived in Germany, demonstrated the device there and in other countries of Europe, and eventually made his way to the United States. For Westerners, the more familiar story of the instrument begins here, and Mr. Glinsky meticulously follows its multifarious paths: performances by Clara Rock-more (née Reisenberg, sister of pianist Nadia Reisenberg) and Lucie Bigelow Rosen, whose independent but devoted activities to the instrument and inventor manifested themselves through an intent...