As someone who grew up tinkering with old electrical contraptions, I was always fascinated by some of the odd properties they displayed. For example, I learned pretty early on that you couldn’t put a microphone too close to a speaker without creating all kinds of squeals and squawks, known as feedback. And I naturally tried to vary the sound by moving the components around, just to see how loud and weird a screech I could create without driving my parents batty. (Well, maybe a little batty.)
But even if the sound was similar, it was a different phenomenon that led to the development of the first electronic synthesizer by young Russian scientist Lev Sergeyevich Termen (who would later go by the name Léon Theremin). He started working on his brainchild in the early 1920s while he was a part of a Soviet lab project, during which he discovered that by waving his hands over two oscillators — one for frequency and the other for amplitude — he could create a whole host of strange and oddly hypnotic sounds. It probably didn’t seem to be a useful discovery at the time, but it was strangely fascinating to hear and he was soon touring Europe and playing his ‘instrument’ before big crowds.
He eventually ended up in the United States, where he patented his ‘etherphone’ in 1928 and then sold the commercial rights to RCA. It wasn’t long before a version known as the RCA Thereminvox was rolling off the assembly line, but even though the sound still fascinated listeners the country was heading into the Great Depression and not too many people could afford something like this. However, RCA did find a market among avant-garde musicians of the era, and those artists found that the public could still afford a ticket to hear them play what was now mostly just called the theremin. One of the best known was Clara Rockmore, who toured the country and performed before packed houses.
Admired by many of America’s elite in society and science too, Theremin continued working on improved models and also oversaw everything from Carnegie Hall concerts to all-theremin orchestras. By the time he went back to Russia in the late 1930s (either voluntarily or not, depending on the source) his creation was being used in a variety of ways, but it wasn’t until the post-war years that it began to become more widely used. Movies like The Lost Weekend and Spellbound used it to good effect for some of the spookier scenes, and it wasn’t long before science fiction movies began to find a lot of spots for strange creepy music. The theremin also began to be utilized more extensively by mainstream musicians like bandleader Les Baxter, whose 1947 album Music Out Of The Moon became a solid hit. Baxter was always known for his innovation and he would later turn to a sort of descendant of the theremin, the Moog Synthesizer.
Robert Moog was a fan of the theremin. If fact, he begin selling DIY theremin kits in the early 1950s while still a college student, and within a few years had done well enough with his little company to upgrade the old-fashioned vacuum tubes to the latest thing, transistors. But he didn’t stop there. After earning his PhD in Engineering Physics he really increased his pace, and eventually ended up with something that looked like it belonged in mission control. It took a lot of training and skill to operate his synthesizer, but the result was a system with almost unlimited capabilities for sound, and a lot of movie-makers and musicians took to it. (One of my favorites was a group called Hot Butter that had a big hit with “Popcorn.”)
As for Léon Theremin, during his long and mysterious absence in Russia he continued to apply himself scientifically. Among his many accomplishments was a way to improve video signals that’s still in use today, but it’s also said that it was his science behind the infamous Cold War era listening device inside the U.S. ambassador’s office in Moscow. It was hidden inside a giant U.S. Great Seal emblem ‘gifted by your Russian friends’, and it gathered info for seven years before its true purpose was discovered. Apparently all was later forgiven, because Theremin revisited the U.S. in 1991 and was welcomed by many, but he was 95 by then. He spent some time in Europe too and did his last theremin concert in 1993 before returning to Moscow, where he died at age 97.
Added note: I had this article all written and ready to go and it was scheduled to post later, but earlier in the day I was watching TV and decided to try a new Netflix series called Babylon Berlin. It’s a period piece set in 1929 Germany, very well done and authentic-looking. Imagine my surprise when one scene featured a lady playing a theremin! I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in use in a movie or TV show, and the timing of this was almost spooky. . .so spooky that it should have a theremin playing in the background. 😉