Questioning Technology: Leon Theremin's Magic Sounds

In October, 1994, at the New York Film Festival, I watched an extraordinary documentary by Steven M. Martin about the creation of the world's first electronic musical instrument. Billed as part biography, part social history and part detective story, the film -- "Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey" -- told the remarkable story of Leon Theremin, a Russian-born inventor whose adventures spanned the avant garde music world in New York City in the 1920s to the clandestine world of the KGB in the 1930s and 40s.In 1922, Theremin demonstrated an early version of his strange new music machine for Nikolai Lenin, the U.S.S.R.'s leader. Five years later, he played his instrument for a group of American VIPs in the Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel in New York City. It was received into America's Jazz Age culture with awe and excitement.The original theremin, that resembled a wooden speakers' podium with a loop of metal extending from one side and a vertical metal antenna on the other, was a real curiosity in these early radio days. Audiences were mesmerized by a new breed of instrument whose music was generated not from physical contact but from hand movements made in the air around the two protruding antennas.By controlling the pitch with the right hand and the volume with the left, it's possible to create music that suggests -- as the New York Times put it -- "a violin or a soprano or a Martian making a landing. It is surpassingly strange."For about two years beginning in 1929, RCA manufactured and sold 500 theremins. From 1930 until his mysterious disappearance in 1938, Leon Theremin built the instruments for customers in his New York studio on West 54th Street.That disappearance makes the Theremin legend even more strange and fascinating. The inventor was apparently kidnapped by Soviet agents from his New York establishment and taken to Russia where, after a period of imprisonment, he was engaged by the government to design electronic eavesdropping technology for spies in World War II.Long assumed dead in the West (a German newspaper reported his demise), he was spotted by chance one day at the Moscow Conservatory of Music by a visiting reporter for the New York Times. This led to his emotional return to the United States in 1991 (an event portrayed in the film).Whether we realize it or not, most of us are familiar with the wavering vibrato sound of the theremin from dozens of 1950's-era science fiction and horror movies. Films like "Spellbound," "The Lost Weekend" and "The Day the Earth Stood Still" used theremins on their soundtracks. The Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" is perhaps the best known use of a theremin in a pop music recording.The theremin caught the imagination of Robert Moog, who started building the instruments as a teenager and began to manufacture them again for sale in 1954, 16 years after Leon Theremin's disappearance. A decade later Moog made music history when he invented the Moog synthesizer, the first in a successful line of electronic music synthesizers.Moog continues to make theremins today at Big Briar, Inc., his company located in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina. Taking advantage of the explosion of new interest in theremins since the release of the film, Moog recently introduced an affordable Theremin called the Etherwave. It's a no compromise, fully professional instrument that emulates the tone color and playing characteristics of Theremin's original. The Etherwave is available in a kit ($299) or preassembled ($369) version.Nostalgic for the old Heathkit days and fascinated by the idea of owning such an oddball instrument, I purchased an Etherwave kit from Big Briar. It comes with an unfinished wood cabinet, nickel-plated brass antennas, a preassembled circuit card, a power supply and several bags of parts. Also included is an instructional video and a CD of theremin music by the inventor's protege, Clara Rockmore. The Big Briar brochure says "if you can read a diagram, solder and use basic home tools, you should be able to build this theremin in an evening or two."Depending on how you choose to finish the wood cabinet (this can take several days in itself), Big Briar's claim is accurate. Though the kit is reasonably simple and assembly is straightforward, the process does offer a gentle challenge to such skills as wood finishing, soldering and paying attention to detailed directions. If one enjoys the solitary pursuit of turning raw parts into a handcrafted, fully functioning object, the Etherwave is a satisfying and rewarding project. Not only do you end up with a truly unique musical instrument but you become a participant in one of the great musical stories of the 20th Century.As with the old Heathkits of 30 years ago, Big Briar doesn't let you fail. The Etherwave Theremin worked perfectly when I first turned on the power switch. If you use reasonable care in assembly, this is pretty much a foolproof project.When I finished the kit, I asked Robert Moog if he could explain why such a cult-like following has developed around this instrument -- with more 50 professional musical acts now using theremins in performance throughout the world.Moog said he thinks several factors have contributed to its appeal. "For one thing the instrument is responsive," he said. "With a keyboard you put your finger on a key and the note plays. That's it. This is just the opposite. The note keeps changing with every single motion of your hand. People like that. They enjoy that responsiveness."Another part of it," he continued, "is that's all in the air. There's something ethereal about that. Something gossamer."The theremin -- after 75 years -- is now enjoying its greatest popularity ever, Moog said. "Back in the earlier days it was an elitist thing. It was rather sensational but there were very few people who actually got up and played it. Now that's changed. It's much better established now than in the past. People are engrossed in it. It's almost a cult thing."In 1993, Leon Theremin died in Moscow at the age of 97. He lived to see the popular revival of his very special instrument.(Big Briar is at 554-C Riverside Drive, Asheville, NC 28801. Phone: (800) 948-1990. Email: info@bigbriar.com or visit the web site at http://www.bigbriar.com. Also see Jason Barile's "Theremin Home Page" at http://www.Nashville.Net/~theremin/. The documentary," Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey," is available from Big Briar.)(Frank Beacham is a New York City-based writer and producer. Visit his web site at: http://www.beacham.com. Mail: 163 Amsterdam Ave. #361, New York, NY 10023. Email: frank@beacham.com )

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