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'Bolt' and the problem of Soviet ballet, 1931

16 February 2015 | By Ivan Sollertinsky

Some Thoughts on the Ballets Russes Abroad

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Last Orders for the Grand Duchy

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Rozanova and Malevich – Racing Towards Abstraction?

15 October 2014 | By Mollie Arbuthnot

Walter Spies, Moscow 1895 – Indonesia 1942

13 August 2014 | By Bazarov

The Genius of Erte

28 April 2014 | By Rachel Hajek

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24 March 2014 | By Renée-Claude Landry

Guest Blog | Pulsating Crystals

17 February 2014 | By Robert Chandler Chandler

Guest Blog | Stenbergs' Faces

03 February 2014 | By Paul Rennie

Shostakovich: A Russian Composer?

05 December 2013 | By Bazarov

Travelling with intourist

31 July 2013 | By Richard Barling

Learning the theremin by Ortino

06 July 2015 | By

In 1920 a young Soviet scientist developed a high frequency oscillator to measure the dielectric constant of gases with high precision. This would have been a fairly innocuous event (as far as wider 20th century culture was concerned) had its inventor not discovered that by adding circuitry to generate an audio tone he could adjust the pitch by moving his hands around its electromagnetic field. Unwittingly, Leon Theremin had just invented the musical instrument that would bear his name, the (ahem…) Theremin.


The Soronprfbs from the film 'Frank'. Theremin on the far right (the box with the aerial).

It is at this point that I should probably point out that I myself am a thereminist, or I have been for the last fortnight - a neophyte thereminist, if you will. After months of covetous Google searches, I succumbed to temptation and bought myself a theremin. Now I am no more a thereminist than I am a shaman, a necromancer, a man who stays late into the night conjuring sounds out of thin air. Some of its noises are ethereal and rather beautiful. Some are startling, others unsettling. One setting allows me to make noises eerily similar to those a Clanger might joyously emit on receiving a second helping from the Soup Dragon. It is hard to explain what first drew me to the idea of having one of these absurd instruments but a recent enthusiasm for the cosmic lounge music of Vyacheslav Mescherin and his orchestra certainly crystallised my musical aspirations. Leon Theremin’s serendipitous revelation came to influence not just a generation of Soviet musicians (who used the instrument to soundtrack everything from factory workers’ shifts to children’s television), but The Beach Boys with their groundbreaking hit 'Good Vibrations', countless Horror film soundtracks and the mighty (if quasi-fictional) band the Soronprfbs (from the 2014 film 'Frank').

However before the theremin became the instrument of choice for misfits, freaks and bohemians, it was played in the classical style by its inventor, who recalled his lessons playing the cello to perform a rendition of Saint Saens' 'The Swan' to none other than Vladimir Lenin. Lenin was so impressed that he started playing the instrument himself, apparently with some panache. Soon Theremin was touring the Soviet Union demonstrating his magical instrument and glorifying the technological prowess of the USSR. However there was a darker side to Theremin’s performances, as they provided the perfect smokescreen for the industrial espionage he would carry out throughout his eleven year stay in America. Blissfully unaware, The Radio Corporation of America offered Theremin the extraordinary sum of $100,000 dollars (most of which was confiscated by the Soviet authorities) to produce the theremin, making it the first mass-produced electronic instrument. Soon theremins would takeover the humble home piano and America would be awash with electronic experimentalists… Or would they? Unfortunately the deal was signed on 12th March 1929, just before the global financial depression in the wake of the Wall Street Crash and Theremin would soon be back in the USSR. That old devil love was to play a part too. Theremin married the young African-American prima ballerina Lavinia Williams sparking shock and disapproval from his contemporary social circle. This was, alas, just another example of how Leon Theremin was far ahead of his time. Ultimately he returned to the Soviet Union, was sent to a prison camp, and developed some bizarre and faintly surreal new bugging inventions including a covert listening device known as ‘The Thing’.

And so in the dead of night when I play my theremin and freak out my dog with its high notes, I can only admire the singular genius of Leon Theremin. The man who, with a happy accident, created this wonderful instrument.