Today, our guest, scientist Andrew Boyd, talks
about the man who wed music to electricity. The
University of Houston presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
It has been called the
strangest musical instrument ever conceived. Unlike
any other, the theremin is never actually
touched when played. Instead, a musician controls
volume and pitch using her hands to interfere with
electromagnetic fields generated by the device.
Used in the soundtrack of the 1951 science fiction
classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, the
theremin's eerie wailings have ever since conjured
up images of sinister aliens and creepy monsters.
What few people realize is that the
theremin was originally promoted by its Russian
creator Leon Theremin as a serious musical
instrument. Born in 1896, Theremin's
experimentation with electronic instruments led him
to the Kremlin where, in 1922, he personally
demonstrated his invention to Vladmir Lenin.
Captivated by Theremin's work, Lenin granted him
permission to travel and present exhibitions,
telling Theremin "come to see me if you need help."
Theremin's journeys took him to many of the
greatest performance halls in the world, including
the Grand Opera House in Paris and the Royal Albert
Hall in London. New York's Metropolitan Opera House
served as the venue for Theremin's 1928 debut in
the United States, where he remained for eleven
years. Supported by patrons, Theremin enjoyed a
life of notoriety, research, and teaching, meeting
innumerable luminaries including Albert Einstein,
whom he hosted for an extended visit.
In 1938, Theremin's life changed forever when he
was forcibly abducted from his Manhattan apartment
and disappeared from the world. Decades later a
personal history as incongruous as that of the
Soviet Union would emerge: time in a labor camp;
years working for Soviet intelligence; purported
recipient of a highly prestigious Stalin medal; a
return to teach music at the Moscow Conservatory of
Music; and dismissal from the conservatory while
his musical instruments were hacked to pieces with
an axe. According to Theremin, at the time of his
dismissal, a conservatory administrator informed
him that electricity was for electrocutions, not
Though there remain pockets of avid theremin
enthusiasts, Theremin's grand vision of an
instrument as common as the violin was never
realized. Yet, his influence on the dawning era of
electronic music was immense. Robert Moog, creator
of the Moog synthesizer and himself one of the most
influential figures in the evolution of electronic
instruments, was fascinated with the theremin. In a
heartfelt interview, Moog aptly summarized
Theremin's impact, calling his work the "biggest,
fattest, most important musical cornerstone of the
whole electronic music movement," and adding,
"that's where it all began."
I'm Andrew Boyd, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Olivia Mattis Interview with Leon Theremin, 16 June
Theremin, Leon. "A Short Memoir." 12 January
Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey.
Documentary film by Steven M. Martin available on
DVD. Copyright 1993, Orion Classics. Copyright
2001,MGM Home Entertainment, Inc.
Poster for the movie cited above. Pictured is the
robot Gort from the movie The Day the Earth
(Poster owned by Andrew and
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.