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Les Memoires de Lev Termen

An autobiographical note by Leon Theremin.

Lev Termen AKA Léon Theremin
Lev Termen AKA Léon Theremin.

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 Tela. 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 signalling which detected the move­ ment of a man who drew near, (to within 4 or 5 metres). 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 3­4 octaves. The first person I demonstrated the instrument to was Yoffe. He was so pleased that he immedi­ ately 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 per­ fected. 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 conversation.

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 U.S.S.R.

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 demon­ strated the possibilities for electronic musical instruments. The management of different sound parameters by the movement of the arm, controlling micro reflections by move­ ments of the eyes, the different possibilities of combining sounds and colours, 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 fol­ lowing 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 etc.

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 U.S.S.R. 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 organised 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 U.S.S.R. 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 `RCI’ 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 U.S.S.R. I had decided to realise the idea when in 1939 I arrived in Leningrad.

12 January, 1983.

[Taken from Jeffrey G. Fox’s Midi Theremin paper.]

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