Leon Theremin - a short memoir
12 January, 1983, by Lev Termen
I started learning music at the age
of 9 and electricity at 7. During my childhood I loved music, I
felt it was something alive and real. When I started playing the
cello, I was uneasy about the contradiction between the music and
the manner in which it was obtained: by the movement of the bow,
resembling a saw and by pressing the fingers against the strings.
I have always wanted to find a way of uniting my passion for electricity
with that of music.
At the age of 13, I became interested
in high frequencies and the transformers of Tesla. I took in one
hand a medium sized metal rod and I got a high voltage spark with
a high pitched sound. A change in distance caused a variation in
the pitch of the sound. In 1920, by invitation of A. F. Yoffe, I
returned to the institution of Physics, Technology and Radio sciences
(which was run by Yoffe himself). Afterwards I became responsible
for the electric oscillation laboratory. I devised a technique which
allowed the measurement of gas temperature and electric signaling
which detected the movement of a man who drew near, (to within 4
or 5 meters). This method allows the measurement of a change in
distance of about 0.0001.
My electrical instrument is based
on the same principle. Bringing the hand against the electrode changes
the pitch of the sound over approximately 3 to 4 octaves. The first
person I demonstrated the instrument to was Yoffe. He was so pleased
that he immediately invited into my laboratory members of the institute
and I received an unexpected ovation. This was September, 1920.
In November I gave my first public concert to students from the
Faculty of Mechanics. At that time my instrument was already perfected.
The volume change, which was previously controlled by a foot pedal,
was now controlled using the left hand, the gestures required being
reminiscent of the conductor of an orchestra.
On the 23rd June, 1921, I asked for
a patent for my invention which I received on the 15th September,
1924. On the 5th October, 1921, I did an exhibition at the 8th congress
of the electromechanical union, which was devoted to the electrification
of the entire country. (GOERLO). The congress was held at the Poytechnic's
museum until the 4th October, 1921. It was a great success and journalists
from `Pravda' and `Izvestiya' christened my instrument the `Termenvox'
from `a voix de Termen', the voice of the Termen.
During the month of May (1922), I had
great delight of personally meeting Vladimir Ilyitch Lenin. He invited
me to the Kremlin to demonstrate my musical instrument. The demonstration
was held in his office. He approved of my research and played with
the instrument himself (He has a good ear for music). Lenin talked
at length with me inexhaustibly on the new energies, (electricity
and the others), on prospects for research and the need for the
electrification of the entire U.S.S.R. To this end he gave me the
right to travel freely throughout the entire country to do my exhibitions.
``Come to see me if you need help'' he told me at the end of our
Afterwards, without interrupting my
work at the institute of Physics and Technology at GIMN, the Poulkoff
observatory and at the military medical school, I gave around 150
conferences and concerts with the `Termenvox' in different towns
and villages in the USSR
In the same period, I created a number
of radio technology installations and amongst all these inventions
I created was the first television set in the world. I always wanted
to meet Vladimir Ilyitch Lenin again but he died at 6:50pm on the
21st January, 1924. On the 10th April, 1925, at the Leningrad Philharmonic
Concert Hall, I demonstrated the possibilities for electronic musical
instruments. The management of different sound parameters by the
movement of the arm, controlling micro reflections by movements
of the eyes, the different possibilities of combining sounds and
colors, geometric shapes, gestures, dance movements and the senses
of touch and smell. Already, much time was spent on structures in
accordance with their natural order.
On July 20th, I was sent abroad with
the intention of scientific research as well as a grand tour of
international concert halls with the `Termenvox'. My first concert
was held at the Frankfurt musical exhibition in Germany. The following
concerts took place in Soviet embassies and grand concert halls;
Berlin, Dresden, Munich and Hamburg. These concerts attracted a
large number of researchers, writers and musicians. I had the opportunity
to speak with Albert Einstein, G'erard Gadinmann, Machko Valter
In Paris, the concerts were held in
the Gaveau Hall at the Grand Opera House. In London, my concert
was held in the Albert Hall with 8000 listening. At that occasion,
I met Bernard Chou, Olivier Lodman and Bruno Walter.
I arrived in the United States on
December 30th, 1927 where the new USSR diplomatic service fought
to be accepted. Our country was considered to be backwards and condemned
to political downfall. The concert, at the Metropolitan Opera, was
organized under the initiative of `Wurlitzer' organs and the committee
of patrons. I stipulated as an essential condition that in all advertising
they put `Leningrad' instead of `Moscow' next to my name to stop
people thinking I was a White Russian. After much discussion I finally
won my case. This certainly helped to increase the prestige of the
USSR in the United States. Afterwards I stayed in New York to set
up the musical workshop and laboratory on West 54. Here I started
a new stage in the development of the Termenvox which was christened
the Theremin in the United States. The companies Radio Corporation,
General Electric and RCA constructed 2000 examples of the Theremin
for sale. Many students worked in my studio. Amongst many figure
Lusi Rossent and Klara Rocmor. I gave several concerts in different
cities: Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles,
Detroit etc. I played 1 In the Russian revolution, White Russians
fought against the Red Russians at the triumphant reception in the
United States for the Soviet aviators: Tchkalov, Beliakov and Baydoukov.
A new version of the Theremin was
created for dancers. The sound was controlled by movement. Four
dancers giving 4 polyphonic voices. Our laboratories were visited
by the cinematographer Eisenstein. After having seen my students
dance, he wanted the first demonstration of this new instrument
to be held inside the USSR I had decided to realize the idea when
in 1939 I arrived in Leningrad.