History of Electroacoustic Music

The Theremin

For many reasons, the theremin holds a unique mystique in the history of electroacoustic music.

It was invented by the Russian Lev Sergeyevich Termen (1896-1993), who was born in St. Petersburg, the most cosmopolitan of Russian cities, near the European border. His father was a lawyer, the son of the tsar's physician. His mother was of noble birth. Thus, he was born into a fairly privileged, aristocratic life.

He was a standout in science at school. When he entered university in 1914, as World War I broke out, he was granted a private study room for independent research, an unprecedented privilege for a young student.

In 1916 he avoided the draft by being sent for training in military engineering, where he learned about radio engineering and was put to work building communications networks.

When the Russian monarchy fell in the Russian Revolution of 1917, Lenin seized private property and the established of a Socialist government. Termen was transferred to Moscow as deputy chief of the new Red Army's Military Radiotechnical laboratory. Eventually he had the opportunity to work at the newly formed Physicotechnical Institute, which was formed to become the center of Soviet innovation, the flagship of the new Communist government. While it was a welcome opportunity to re-enter the world of high end research, it was also a one-way ticket into the inner sanctum of Soviet strategies and mandates. But it was also a place of refuge, as the intelligentsia had suffered under the Lenin's levelling of classes, receiving reduced food rations, having property confiscated, and undergoing various forms of legal discrimination. The Institute offered scientists a place of status and a certain freedom (within the constraints of furthering the Soviet cause).

While Termen was initially put to work examining crystal structures with X rays, he soon tapped into the developments of radio technology. Of particular interest to him was his observation that the human body could act as a capacitor, and store a charge. Thus, a human in the vicinity of a capacitor circuit would change the capacitance of the circuit. He designed a "radio watchman" that was a feedback oscillator whose output fed an antenna. A person entering the field of the antenna altered the capacitance in the circuit, closed a contact switch and sounded an audible signal.

Termen was then asked to measure changes in the density of gases under varying pressure and temperature. He placed gas between two capacitor plates. By changing the temperature or density of the gas (by moving a hand within it) the capacitance was changed between the plates. He fine-tuned it by using an oscillator that generated an audible frequency based on the capacitance level. When the hand moved in the field, the pitch changed. The effect fascinated everyone, particularly as he learned to play approximations of well-known melodies. He was encouraged to pursue a musical application. The result was an instrument he called the "etherphone."

To create the instrument, he implemented superheterodyning, the same technique that Armstrong was developing in the US for tuning in high frequency radio waves. Pitch was controlled via a pairs of high-frequency oscillators. One was fixed in frequency at 170 kHz, the other was variable, producing frequencies at 168-170 kHz. The difference frequency between the two that resulted when they were multiplied was audible. The variable oscillator was connected to a vertical antenna that radiated an electromagnetic field. When a hand moved closer to the antenna, the the capacitance increased, reducing the frequency of the variable oscillator, creating a difference frequency when it was heterodyned with the fixed oscillator. This difference frequency was audible, as it lay in the range of 0 - 2 kHz (the range of possible frequency difference bewteen the two oscillators). The closer the hand was to the antenna, the lower was the variable oscillator's frequency became. This created a greater the difference with the fixed oscillator frequency, thus the higher the difference pitch. When the hand was moved farther from the antenna, the capacitance was lowered, so the variable frequency was raised, so the difference frequency dropped. Thus, the hand's proximity to the vertical antenna determined the pitch the instrument produced.

Volume was controlled via a horizontal loop from the box's left side. This was the same set of oscillators and superheterodyned frequencies as that found in the pitch-generating circuitry. The difference in frequencies between the two components of the instrument, plus their 90 degree orientation difference between the loop and the antenna, kept the two sets of oscillators from interfering with each other.

The volume loop's oscillator sent a primary current flowing through the horizontal loop, and on to a vacuum tube. The current heated the tube, causing a secondary current to flow to an amplifier. As the left hand approached the horizontal loop, it introduced capacitance that inhibited the primary current from flowing. With less current reaching the vacuum tube, less secondary current flowed to the amplifier, and the volume was lowered.

Termen first demonstrated the instrument, now known as the Termenvox, in 1920, and his reputation quickly spread. Eventually he was invited to demonstrate it to Lenin, who was extremely interested in radio engineering, having declared that "Socialism equals Soviet power plus electrification." Termen became the darling of Lenin, who encouraged him to develop the instrument further.

Not everyone was so unqualified in their admiration of the inventor. Some thought him a mad dreamer, and sometimes the description fit. When a young student died of pneumonia, he was convinced he could bring her back to life, having studied how cells taken from a glacier could be restored to life. He wanted to go to her parents to ask their permission for him to experiment with reviving her. His colleagues convinced him it would be in poor taste, and he withdrew.

Just at the time Lenin suffered a stroke in 1922, the beginning of his ultimate decline, Termen received a rail pass to travel throughout the Soviet Union, demonstrating the instrument as propaganda. The idea was to show the people what they were working for, the level of modernity that was on the horizon for Soviet society.

Lenin died in 1924, and was succeeded by Stalin. Termen's radio watchman was put to work guarding Soviet treasures (riches confiscated from churches under Lenin's rule; the state bank; a set of Scythian tombs, ancient marauders whose tombs had large caches of gold).

Termen worked on research to develop television, while also participating in an agreement with a German business to manufacture the radio watchman and Termenvox. This alliance was in actuality part of an industrial espionage plot, allowing Soviet operatives to work in German plants to gain industrial secrets and to foment a socialist revolution in Germany, which remained ravaged and weakened as a result of World War I.

By 1927, Termen had gained further renown for his work in early television technology. He also performed on the Termenvox, along with a device called the Illuminovox that projected colors corresponding with pitches. Meanwhile, the Kremlin put the television technology to work in surveillance for troops along the border. They appropriated it, and forbade him to work on it any further, content to use it for secret internal spying. His version was actually more advanced than the USA's at the time, but Stalin was satisfied enough with it as a surveillance device, and he did not support any further development of the invention.

Termen was sent abroad to Germany, where his name had been transliterated into Theremin, on more propaganda demonstrations of the Termenvox. At the same time he was under orders to gain industrial and technological secrets. As an engineer who played captivating music, he was seen as the perfect man for the job.

In Germany, he caused a sensation, both among local VIPs and the international press. The Kremlin decided to send him to America. On the way, the British and French governments managed to arrange brief appearances. While reviews were mixed -- many pointing out that there was an unfortunate portamento effect (sliding from pitch to pitch) that seemed unavoidable, others noting that his intonation was faulty -- overall tremendous potential was seen for his instrument. The sensation was caused in no small part by Theremin's own showmanship and hyperbolic claims -- among them that this instrument could create any sound of an orchestral instrument, that it could be mastered in a mere two weeks. By the time he set sail for America, his arrival was keenly anticipated.

Once in America, he went on the concert circuit, as well as playing for small affairs in the private salons of society's upper crust. He also began making deals with American corporations to market his instrument. RCA offered him a lucrative contract, based on an advertising pitch that playing the instrument was "as easy as whistling." Theremin formed his own corporation with a number of other Soviet operatives. Among those who endorsed the instrument was conductor Leopold Stokowski. For a number of reasons, however, sales were not as brisk as RCA expected. Among the problems were the stock market crash of 1929, inadequately trained sales staff at music stores, poor technical support, and lack of available instructors in the instrument. The "easy as whistling" claim was entirely misleading, as it claimed that the instrument was each to play since it was not touched. In fact quite the opposite was true -- the absence of tactile contact made it extremely difficult for prospective players to orient themselves to the spatial movements and pitches.

Termen launched a series of other corporations. One was to develop television, although by this time television was being researched via a different production methodology that eventually predominated. Another was to produce alarm systems based on his "silent watchman" model. These alarms were briefly employed at the federal prison on Alcatraz island in San Francisco, but were frequently inoperative due to burned out vacuum tubes. All of these corporations were highly speculative, formed based on guarantees of profits from his other corporations. The result was an interdependent series of speculative ventures, none of which succeeded. Termen went into heavy debt, but continued pursuing backers for new ideas, living the high life in New York City. One wealthy couple was intrigued with his work, and placed him in a townhouses that they owned in midtown. This became a gathering places of artists and intellectuals. In the meantime, unbeknownst to his high society friends, he was still officially a Soviet operative. Contacts would assign him observation duties at various factories, and he had regular meetings with agents who would escort him to a seedy cafe, where he would be "primed" with shots of vodka so that he would loosen up tell them everything he had observed.

A select few took intense interest in mastering the instrument. The most accomplished was Clara Reisenberg (who became Clara Rockmore after her marriage), a former violinist. She developed techniques to control pitch and articulation, and had the poise to pull off performances on it -- no small feat, as she told a journalist:

"You must not only hit a note, but you must hit the center of it. You cannot register any of your internal emotion at all. You cannot shake your head, for instance, or sway back and forth on your feet. That would change your tone."

Reisenberg's motionless intensity riveted audiences, and her musicianship was to be the penultimate realization of the instrument's potential. She also made a number of suggestions that led to improvements in the instrument. One was that notes could not be played quickly (due to the time it took the amplifier filament to heat up). Theremin made improvements to the instrument that allowed the filament to heat up faster, allowing better articulation of notes. Theremin courted her, but she turned him down for lawyer John Rockmore.

Termen's other projects included an enlarged version of the instrument for dancers. Another was a "Magic Mirror" that was placed in department store windows. When passers-by approached the mirror, a light was triggered that illuminated the glass from behind and showed a picture of a product or an advertising message. A variation on the silent watchman was a "crib watcher" that was to allow parents to protect their children from intruders when they slept -- this invention was in response to the Lindbergh baby kidnapping that riveted the nation. Edgard Varèse employed the theremin for use in his piece Ecuatorial in 1934, although due to the control difficulties of the instrument, he reassigned those parts to the ondes martenot for the published version of the score. In another project, Termen worked with the American Negro Ballet, where he fell in love with one of the dancers. This shocked many people -- not only was an esteemed intellectual canoodling with a lowly dancer, the woman was also an African American, making the romance a kind of perversion in this time of segregation in America. (The fact that she was extremely cultured, well read, and spoke several language, Russian among them, was lost on such critics.)

By 1938, all commercial interest in the instrument had waned, although there were a handful of people who performed with it. Termen's financial affairs were in shambles. He had repeatedly extended his visas, but was running out of reasons to stay any longer. He longed to return to the USSR and a life of research. He left the country secretly -- there was no direct shipping to the USSR, and he had to be smuggled covertly out through operatives. His wife happened to be present when he was escorted away. She knew nothing of the plan. All she knew was that out of nowhere a pair of apparent gangsters appeared and told him to come with them. Termen told her not to try to follow him or contact him, and in a matter of minutes he had vanished. No one knew where he had gone or anything of his connections with Russian spy networks while in the United States. Many history books reported him dead. He remained a mysterious figure who had passed briefly through the US, leaving wild ideas and a strange instrument that gradually found its way into the hands of hobbyists. It did make occasional appearances in the media, the first one of note being the buzzing sound heard during the opening of the radio drama The Green Hornet. But the inventor and the nature of his disappearance remained a mystery.

Albert Glinsky, Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage. University of Illinois Press, 2000.
Robert A Moog, liner notes to The Art of the Theremin CD, Delos D/CD 1014.