From Russia with Modernism: Theremin - Page 3

Born nearly a century ago, the enchanting theremin is still ahead of its time—struggling to be heard

Theremin married Lavinia Williams, a black dancer 20 years his junior, but happiness and financial success in his adopted land eluded him. This aggravated his abiding homesickness. Under pressure from the KGB, Theremin secretly departed Manhattan in 1938 aboard a Russian freighter.

However much he may have been ready to leave, it has been widely assumed that Theremin had been kidnapped. In any case, his return to a nation now in the despotic grip of Josef Stalin did, in fact, prove menacing. He was arrested in 1939 and committed to several years of captivity, first in a Siberian labor camp and then in a less restrictive sharashka, where he was put to work enhancing the technology of Soviet aircraft. Theremin was afforded no opportunity to communicate with his wife, friends, and fans in the U.S., where he was given up for dead.

The instrument Theremin had left behind gained some notice through the war years in the hands of Clara Rockmore, and in Hollywood, where it invoked the threats of alcoholism on the soundtrack to 'Lost Weekend' and of mental imbalance in 'Lady in the Dark' and 'Spellbound.' The film work went to Samuel Hoffman, who'd relocated his medical practice to the West Coast.

Back in the USSR, Theremin helped launch the Cold War with a tiny prototype 'bug' he implanted in a wall plaque presented to the American ambassador. Finally freed from his prisoner status in 1947 (but not from the stigma), Theremin received from Stalin a reward of cash and a comfortable Moscow apartment, which he shared with yet another young wife, Maria Guschina. In 1948, the couple became the parents of twin daughters, Helena and Natalia, both destined to study the theremin.

populr elctronic magazine cover

American electronics hobbyists, after the War, shared plans for homemade theremins, among them one designed and built by Bronx high schooler Robert Moog in 1951. Throughout that mid-century decade, the status of the theremin as a source of spooky sound effects was reinforced by Hoffman's work in such popular sci-fi and horror films as 'The Day the Earth Stood Still,' 'The Thing,' 'The Five Thousand Fingers of Dr. T,' and 'It Came From Outer Space.'

Theremin pursued his interest in the interconnection between electronics and music into the Khrushchev era and the 1960s without much recognition or reward. On a Moscow visit with her husband in 1962, Clara Rockmore was thrilled to find her old flame alive, but she kept her discovery to herself, cautious about violating Cold War protocol.

Had Theremin remained in or returned to the States, he would have done well to have teamed up with Bob Moog, who on his way to securing a Ph.D. at Cornell had launched a business that included the manufacture of theremins. One of Moog's models was based on the inventor's original design (with an elegant but bulky mahogany cabinet), and another on more portable transistorized circuitry.

Moog theremins have continued to find favor with serious thereminists, wary of inferior imitations. "There are so many reasons why [the theremin] is not used as a legitimate musical instrument, and I think one is that there are many theremins that are not very well built out there," claims performing and recording thereminist Pamelia Kurstin.

The theremin sound sought by Beach Boy Brian Wilson for 'Good Vibrations' was performed by former Glenn Miller trombonist Paul Tanner on a device called the electro-theremin, a less-charming imitation of the original, with notes marked along an electrically charged strip.

bela lugosi pictured with theremin

"I thought, as long as we're doing something eerie today, why don't we get real eerie and put a theremin on it," Wilson remembers about the song's production. "It went to number one in the nation, and all because of the theremin and the cello."

The good vibes Theremin enjoyed while educating Lydia Kavina in the '70s were enhanced a decade later with the easing of restrictions brought by perestroika and glasnost under benign leader Mikhail Gorbachev. More than 60 years after his first successful tour, Theremin found himself able to showcase his instrument again in France and at Stanford University in 1991, where he performed 'Midnight In Moscow' to a standing ovation.

This reintroduction to the West of both Theremin and his musical creations was greatly furthered by Steven M. Martin's film 'Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey,' which won a Documentary Filmmakers' Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994. The film included footage of the nonagenarian Theremin in Moscow, of the long-widowed Clara Rockmore (15 years Theremin's junior) exhibiting her still-faultless technique, and of a touching reunion between the two former sweethearts in Clara's Manhattan apartment.