Musical Hero: Leon Theremin
Bolshevik, Inventor, Industrial Spy, Grandfather of Techno
Web2Carz Senior Writer
Published: March 18th, 2012
It’s impossible to measure Theremin’s influence on the course of modern music.
eon Theremin didn’t set out to revolutionize music. In fact, he didn’t even set out to create a new musical instrument. He was trying to develop a device that would measure the density of gasses, and discovered that the sound his vacuum-tube-driven device produced changed based on the proximity of his hand to its antennae.
A trained cellist, Theremin instantly saw the potential for a musical instrument that could be played without touching it.
The aetherphon, the instrument that was soon to become known as the Theremin, caught on quickly, and soon came to the attention of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who summoned the inventor to the Kremlin to demonstrate his instrument.
Lenin was so impressed he sent Theremin on tour throughout Russia to promote both his revolutionary instrument and the use of electricity that was beginning to spread throughout the country.
Lenin then sent Theremin throughout Europe and the United States, where his demonstrations sold out venues everywhere, including Carnegie Hall.
RCA gave Theremin $100,000 for the rights to mass-produce his instrument, which they felt would be the next big thing, since all one needed to do to play it was move ones hands through the air.
Unfortunately for RCA, the instrument’s high price made it unobtainable to most people who found themselves, only a month after the Theremin hit store shelves, overwhelmed by the Great Depression.
Thus the Theremin languished in obscurity for decades.
Meanwhile, Leon Theremin remained in the States where he secretly worked as an industrial spy for the Soviet Union. And it was during this time that Theremin developed another of his most famous inventions, The Thing, a listening device that was successfully used to bug the residence of the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union.
Theremin married an African-American ballerina (a shocking thing to do in the 30s), but then, in 1938, mysteriously left the country and returned to his homeland.
Speculation remains as to whether Theremin was forcibly taken home, or whether he left of his own volition, but a year later he was falsely accused of being a counterspy, and spent eight years in a Soviet Gulag.
His instrument meanwhile was being used in Hollywood to add eerie soundtracks to sci-fi films, until Robert Moog began manufacturing and selling them. Moog’s fascination with the idea of electronic sounds led to the development of his synthesizer, which sparked the electronic music revolution that heavily influenced not only rock and roll, but nearly every subsequent genre of modern music.
The Theremin was most famously used in the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” but it also inspired one of the first psychedelic rock bands, Lothar and the Hand People (Lothar being the name given to the band’s Theremin).
It’s impossible to measure Theremin’s influence on the course of modern music. Fortunately, Leon Theremin lived to witness his instrument’s lasting effect. He died in 1993 in Moscow.