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The Times (17/Nov/1993) - Obituary: Leon Theremin

(c) The Times (17/Nov/1993)

Obituary: Leon Theremin

Leon Theremin, a pioneer of electronic music and the inventor of a forerunner of the synthesiser, died in Moscow on November 3 aged 97. He was born in St Petersburg in 1896.

Leon Theremin invented his device originally known as the etherophone in 1920 and soon afterwards performed a demonstration before Lenin. The most striking feature of the theremin was that it was designed to be played without being touched. Resembling a conventional bulky wireless set, it contained two oscillators which produced a single, cello-like sustained note when an object entered the field. Players changed the pitch (which spanned about four-and-a-half octaves) by moving their right hand up and down in front of an antenna, while the volume was controlled by waving the left hand near a loop antenna fixed to the side.

For the last 40 years of his life Theremin lived in relative obscurity in Russia. But by a curious stroke of fate, his death occurred the day after the screening on British television of a new American-made television documentary, Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey which cast light on his extraordinary achievements in the field of electronic music.

Born into a family of French extraction, Theremin (whose Russian name was Lev Sergeyevich Termen) studied physics and astronomy at St Petersburg University, and was appointed to a senior post at the Physico-Technical Institute. As a boy, alongside his scientific studies, he had attained early mastery of the cello and it was his interest in music that had led to his developing the instrument which was to bear his name.

Experiments begun in 1918, just after the Bolshevik Revolution had convinced him that a device could be perfected whereby definite use in the form of musical sound production could be made of the interaction of two high frequency oscillations of slightly different frequency. He eventually constructed five instruments which could be played at the same time in an orchestral fashion.

He brought his invention to Europe in 1927, demonstrating it in Paris and London (at the Albert Hall) before moving on to New York where he appeared with it at the Carnegie Hall.

The invention and the demonstrations in Paris and London were reported at length in The Times and described as the production of "music from the ether". Schubert's Ava Maria, Offenbach's Musette, Saint-Saens's Le Cygne, Rubinstein's Night and other pieces accompanied by a pianist were played "with surprising success and enthusiastically applauded," said The Times correspondent.

The following year Theremin took out a patent and RCA put the instrument into commercial production. A number of composers, including Edgard Varese, later incorporated it in their work. But the instrument reached its widest audience through the cinema, where it frequently was used to provide eerie sound effects in melodramas such as Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) and science fiction dramas such as The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). The theremin's other-worldly tones could also be heard on pop records, including The Beach Boys' 1960s hit "Good Vibrations". The modern keyboard-based variant used on that recording was built by the creator of the first commercial synthesiser, Robert Moog. Interviewed in Steven Martin's documentary film, he paid tribute to Theremin's work as "the biggest, fattest cornerstone of electronic music".

At his laboratory on West 54th Street Theremin busied himself with many other projects which included a stringless electronic cello and the so-called Terpsitone, a "musical dance platform" which was controlled by the movements of dancers. Another device, the Rhythmicon (said to have been built for Charles Ives) produced multiple rhythms simultaneously. Theremin also produced an electronic security system, which was installed at Sing Sing prison, and worked on an early version of a colour television.

In 1938 he returned to the Soviet Union in mysterious circumstances it was later alleged that he was abducted by agents of the Soviet secret police. On his return he was convicted of the standard charge of anti-Soviet propaganda and sentenced to seven years in a Siberian labour camp. His former colleagues assumed that he was either shot or had died in prison.

In fact, after the outbreak of war he was transferred to a secret research institute where he worked on remote-control tracking systems. Later he also invented a miniature bugging device used by the KGB. By this time he was apparently back in favour with the Soviet hierarchy, and he was secretly awarded a much-coveted Stalin Prize. It is said that the dictator personally upgraded the award from a lesser level to the highest category.

Theremin continued to work for the KGB until the mid-1960s when he was appointed professor of acoustics at the Moscow Conservatory. He continued in this post for several years, until a Western correspondent visited him and wrote an article about his career. After the dispatch appeared Theremin was dismissed and his instruments destroyed. He was subsequently employed as a technician at an electronics institute, and was said to have been still actively working on his instruments at his home at the time of his death. During his stay in the US he married Lavina Williams, a member of the First American Negro Ballet. He remarried after the war and leaves twin daughters by his second marriage.