The sound of the theremin is the sound of another world — of the UFO landing or the spirits speaking or the mystery that won’t ever let itself be solved.
You’ve heard it even if you don’t know you’ve heard it, whether in the opening credits of some black-and-white sci-fi film (The Day The Earth Stood Still) or a Shostakovich composition or a song by the Pixies or the Rolling Stones. (And the theremin sound-alike in the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.”) It’s that lonesome, warbling tone that’s come to signify a sort of pure sad strangeness at the edge of popular music. If you’re a certain sort of person, it might be the most powerful thing you’ve ever heard.
If so, you’ll understand the point of this Wednesday’s Moving Through Space Toward You at Largo at the Coronet, a celebration of the strange and even tragic sound—and history—of the theremin, with performances and dialogue from experimental indie band Califone, composer and thereminist Eban Schletter and more.
Organized by theremin converts Mollie Casey and Canadian music journalist Sean Michaels, Moving Through Space is closer to a séance than a conventional night out. Says Michaels, whose new novel Us Conductors tells the story of the star-crossed romance between theremin inventor Lev Termen and theremin prodigy Clara Rockmore: “I'm not flying all the way from Montreal for a lecture and a high-five. Moving Through Space Toward You is going to be intimate and extraordinary, a lesson and conversation and beautiful cabaret about the world's most magical musical instrument.”
The story of the theremin is as tragic as it is magic. Termen himself led a life fit more for a Thomas Pynchon novel than a conventional history book, transforming — not always by choice — from scientist to musician to prisoner to spy during two world wars and one revolution. His eureka moment was in 1920, while working on an alarm device designed to respond to physical motion. The Russian scientist serendipitously discovered that motion plus electricity plus sound made music — albeit music like no one had ever heard before.
Termen’s invention, Americanized to “theremin” but first and most appropriately dubbed the Etherphone, had absolutely nothing to do with any musical instrument existing at the time. Instead, it lifted its fragile melody out of the air, making music based on the position of human hands within its electrical field.
Lenin himself was delighted with the instrument, even performing a song with Termen. When Termen came to the U.S. in 1928, he was feted as a visionary, demonstrating his device for forward thinkers of all types: “There was one man who was interested in the color of music, the connection between light and music,” he told an interviewer later. “And that was Einstein.”
“To me, it’s like pure inner light,” explains Eban Schletter. “It’s like, if sound is the soul that occupies the body of an instrument, by resonating through the coils of a horn or the body of a violin, the tone of a theremin is sound without a body. When I play a song on the theremin, particularly one that is usually sung with lyrics, it’s like I’m playing the ghost of that song.”
For ten more years, Termen remained in America, unsuccessfully wooing and pursuing first-order thereminist Clara Rockmore (and instead marrying Lavinia Williams, a ballerina from the American Negro Ballet Company) while RCA tried and failed to mass-market his instrument: “RCA intended for there to be a theremin in every home, like a spectral successor to the piano,” says Michaels. “But a few things happened: the 1929 crash; a major patent dispute; and the inventor disappeared from America.”
By 1938, Termen had become a ghost himself. Williams reportedly told friends Termen had been kidnapped by Russian agents; in an interview decades later, Termen made noises about reporting back home to defend the motherland against German aggression. Even now, the true circumstances surrounding Termen’s departure from Manhattan are murky.
When he suddenly re-emerged decades later, in 1989, he found that his invention had inspired experimental geniuses like Robert Moog and established itself in film and classical and popular music. He also learned that he’d been presumed dead for years.
In reality, he’d been absorbed into the Soviet gulag system and set to designing items with more direct military application, including listening devices that would confound Western intelligence services. In the mid-'70s, when he’d tried to make a new variation on his theremin, his inventions were confiscated and thrown out at the direction of bureaucrats who told him, “Electricity is not good for music; electricity is to be used for electrocution.”
The theremin makes a perfect metaphor for the very connections that make us human, says Michaels — the space between us just waiting to become music. He still remembers the moment when the theremin touched him, even ten years later.
“I was driving through the dark, alone in the car, and I turned on the radio. There, out of the silence, a voice rose up. It was a gorgeous soprano, unearthly and fragile, impossibly beautiful. The most magical aria I had ever known. Then, at the end of the segment, the host explained that I had been listening not to a singer but to a theremin. A theremin, perfectly played.”