A century of electronic music
As the first manufactured electronic instrument, the theremin is the cornerstone of all electronic music that followed. To mark the centenary of the theremin's invention (1919-20), we present THEREMIN 100: an audio-visual spectacular saluting a century of electronic music.
Theremin 100 uses original and adapted music, film and narration to chart the remarkable story of the history's first manufactured electronic instrument, the only to be played without contact. The 100-year tale of the theremin spans two world wars, bestrides the struggles between Russia and America, communism and capitalism, idealism and harsh reality. Its features characters from Lenin to Led Zeppelin and sees musical instruments transformed into tools of political espionage. Above all, it is the story of one mysterious man, whose visionary creation stirred the world, saw his loyalties divided, and almost cost him his life.
1919-1929: Music from the Ether
In 1919, Russian radio engineer, cellist and visionary Lev Termen (later Leon Theremin, 1896-1993) stumbles on the secret of drawing music from the charged air. His invention astonishes scientists and concert-goers alike. Lenin summons Termen to the Kremlin for a private demonstration. Convinced of the instrument's potential to project Soviet power and transform the country's flagging economy, the Soviet government sends Theremin on a state-sanctioned world tour; he astounds the audiences of Paris, Cologne, Berlin and London; he crosses paths with Albert Einstein, Sergei Rachmaninoff, George Gershwin, Maurice Martenot and George Bernard Shaw; newspapers excitedly prophesy the extinction of the orchestral; electricity (and music) are in the air.
SOUND: 19th century classics with a modern twist
VISION: dawn of the recorded era; archival film and phonographs; Russian Revolution; Soviet Power plus Electrification!
1927-1938: A Theremin in Every Home
STORY: On December 20 1927, Theremin arrives in New York City to a storm of paparazzi; the instrument Lenin had hailed as a proletarian triumph captivates capitalist America. Theremin sets up a lab in Manhattan, and secures a staggering $100,000 contract with the Radio Corporation of America. Advertisements acclaim the 1929 RCA Theremin as "the easiest of all instruments to play". Only 500 instruments are produced and the venture is a financial disaster. Theremin's creative endeavours continue with experiments in television, defensive systems for Alcatraz, and an entire orchestra of electronic instruments at Carnegie Hall. Despite this, his financial and social affairs were in tatters: creditors snap at his heels, his interracial marriage to Haitian-American dancer Lavinia Williams draws attention, and he is increasingly suspected of espionage. In September 1938, Leon Theremin disappears. No-one is told of his departure; Lavinia assumes he has been kidnapped by Stalin's increasingly capricious government.
SOUND: the jazz age dawns; an orchestra of electronic instruments take to the stage
VISION: a frenzy of radiophonic excitement; flappers shimmy the Charleston to an electronic beat
1939-1960: From Science to Sci-Fi
STORY: Isolated from their inventor, surviving theremins from RCA's limited production run are quickly turned to new uses: their ghostly wailings became the leitmotif for psychological thrillers and the rapidly-expanding genre of science-fiction: Music out of the Moon, It Came from Outer Space, The Lost Weekend, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Mars Attacks! ... from 1939 onward the theremin gains, unbeknownst to its inventor, an association with the otherworldly which persists to the present day.
SOUND: space-age exotica; hi-fi sci-fi; "klaatu barada niktu!"
VISION: the space age has arrived; flying saucers attack; "by 1979 man will have colonised the moon..."
1960-1991: Imprisonment and Espionage
Clara Rockmore had been Theremin's star pupil in the 30s. Holidaying in Moscow in 1962, she furtively asks a guest about the inventor who was her lifelong inspiration, but mysteriously vanished decades ago. "Theremin?" the man replies, "I had lunch with him today"; Clara's heart leapt, and the next day she meets the professor on the rumbling lines of the Moscow city line. Theremin, glancing about at invisible spies as he speaks, tells Clara that he was kidnapped, and taken to Kolyma Internment Camp in the furthest reaches of Siberia. His convictions had been fabricated, his confession elicited under torture. He was sent there to die.
Knowing his life was in danger, Leon had secretly began work on a project that he knew would guarantee his survival. This was no tunnel or escape route, but a spying device so powerful and brilliant in its conception that it could not be ignored – a bugging device that required no electricity, and was practically undetectable. Unveiling his device after years of labour, Theremin was presented with the Stalin Prize, the highest state honour. He was finally freed. With communism collapsing behind him, Leon Theremin left Russia, for one last world tour.
SOUND: reflective neoclassical; an electronic pulse beats on
VISION: lost decades blur into the Siberian snow
1991-2019: Ode to an Electronic Future
In September 1991, Leon Theremin returns to America. For the 95 year-old inventor, it is an almost hallucinatory experience. Reunited with his Clara, he wanders the kaleidoscopic metropolis in open-eyed amazement. Standing in the roaring hubbub of Times Square, the American altar to electronic glitz, he struggles to hold back tears. Music halls are filled with the sounds of electronic orchestras, drum machines, synthesizers, and electronic pianos; doors swing open without touch...
SOUND: an interconnected marvel of sound, light, and technology
VISION: the future Leon dreamt of has arrived
Andrei Smirnov, Sound in Z: Experiments in Sound and Electronic Music in Early 20th Century Russia (2013)
Albert Glinsky, Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage (2000)
Mike Buffington and Andy Baron, RCATheremin.com (2018)