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Intelligent Machines

Good Vibrations

Electronic music’s Soviet roots.

Electronic instruments have found their way into almost every genre of music. While many may consider electronic synthesizers and musical computers phenomena of the digital age, the electrification of music dates back to early Soviet Russia.

In 1920 a young physicist, Leon Theremin (n Lev Sergeyevich Termen), was working at a technical institute outside St. Petersburg. One of his first assignments was to develop a device to determine how changes in pressure and temperature affect gas density. His creation proved so sensitive that even the wave of a hand would alter capacitance. By adding parts from radio transmitters, he was able to make such changes audible as warbling, whistling tones.

A former cello player, Theremin entertained his colleagues with simple tunes he played by maneuvering his hands near the device: the apparatus, originally called the aetherphone, was the first instrument that was played without being touched. Theremin demonstrated his device to Lenin in 1922 and later toured with it across Russia and Europe. The inventor brought it to New York City in 1927 and played for the cultural elite, including Sergei Rachmaninoff.

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Theremin set up a laboratory in Manhattan, continuing his work and increasing the profile of the instrument with help from Clara Rockmore, a theremin virtuosa and fellow Russian. In 1929 RCA licensed and began producing his improved device, now known as the theremin. Much to the shock of his friends and family, Theremin disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1938.

Over the next 20 years, interest in the theremin waned, but it was often heard in sci-fi movies. The instrument and its successors found new life in the 1960s, notably in the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” Robert Moog, a pioneering creator of electronic synthesizers, launched his career with a mail-order business selling his versions of the theremin.

Theremin reappeared in the public sphere in 1967, when a New York Times journalist happened upon him in Russia. The inventor had returned to his homeland, where he was made to serve time in prison and subsequently to develop military devices. He died in Russia in 1993.

The theremin recently experienced another revival-today hundreds of musicians, including Elvis Costello and the Imposters, use it. In his foreword to Albert Glinsky’s 2000 book, Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage, Moog wrote that Theremin was “an object of adulation by thousands of modern-day music technologists.”

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