MUSIC FROM THE ETHER – A FULLY RESTORED AND OPERATIONAL THEREMIN, POSSIBLY BUILT BY LÉON THEREMIN OR UNDER HIS INSTRUCTION AT THE TELETOUCH COMPANY.
Léon Theremin — or Lev Sergeyevich Termen — was a Russian and Soviet inventor who laid the groundwork for the development of electronic music with his namesake invention, the theremin. Lev invented the instrument in the early 1920’s while conducting research on proximity sensors for the Russian government. He presented it to Vladimir Lenin in 1922, who was so impressed with its futuristic sound and design that he sent the inventor on a promotional tour to demonstrate the instrument for audiences worldwide. Following a sensational reception in Europe, Theremin brought the device to the United States in 1928, where he debuted it at the Plaza Hotel and captivated audiences by extracting "music from the ether.” On the heels of its New York debut, Theremin enjoyed a period of celebrity in America, and attracted the attention of Clara Rockmore, a violin-virtuoso who is widely credited with helping the instrument transcend its novelty status, and Lucie Rosen, who was a champion and patron of Theremin and his instrument.
After securing a patent for his invention in 1928, Theremin granted commercial production rights to RCA. It was not a commercially successful venture, and it is estimated that only about 500 instruments were made before RCA discontinued production circa 1930. At this time, Theremin had established the Theremin Studio and Laboratory and the Teletouch Company, and was engaged in the production of other wares, such as automatic door openers, fire alarms, and burglar alarms. Following RCA’s abandonment, Teletouch began producing custom theremins to order. The instrument on offer here is one of one of perhaps ten known prototypes and soloist instruments built between 1928-1938 at his New York workshop. While there are no studio markings on the chassis or inside the cabinet, there are many hand-written notations (possibly in his holograph) and, perhaps most importantly, green-cloth insulated wire coils. Theremin-made instruments were distinguished by the use green silk or cotton-insulated wire for the electrical coils, a practice that had fallen out of use in the electronic industry at that time. The cabinet, which is characteristic of other Teletouch commissions, dates this theremin to circa 1937-1938, shortly before Theremin’s abrupt return to the Soviet Union where, in a curious turn of events, he would end up designing listening devices in a Gulag laboratory and working for the KGB, before becoming a professor of physics at Moscow State University.
A theremin consists of two antennae, each of which has an electromagnetic field surrounding it. The hands of the musician create interference, which alter the surrounding electromagnetic fields, affecting volume and pitch, respectively. It has been called the easiest instrument to play, but the hardest to master. Rockmore articulated the necessary level of precision: "You must not only hit a note, but you must hit the center of it. You cannot register any of your internal emotion at all. You cannot shake your head, for instance, or sway back and forth on your feet. That would change your tone." The unmistakable sound of the Theremin can be heard across a vast swath of media, perhaps most famously in film scores in the 1940’s and 50’s — Spellbound (1945), The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), and Forbidden Planet (1956), among others. Theremin and his invention also laid the groundwork for contemporary electronic music — Robert Moog, who created the first voltage-controlled synthesizer (the Moog synthesizer), began his career in 1954 by building theremins.