Want to contribute stories or media to Thereminvox.com? Just follow the links.

Soviet pioneer of electronic music pays historic visit to Stanford

Olivia Mattis’ 1991 report about Léon Theremin’s visit to Stanford University, USA.

STANFORD — Robert Moog, inventor of the synthesizer; Max Mathews, inventor of computer music; and other electronic music pioneers gathered at Stanford over the centennial weekend for a concert and symposium honoring the pioneer of them all — 95-year-old Leon Theremin, inventor of the first practical electronic musical instrument.

When he began work on his “thereminvox” in 1917, the revolution in his native Russia had barely cooled. In 1920, Vladimir Lenin himself asked for a lesson and played a tune on the amazing instrument that could be played by waving one’s hands in the air. By 1927, Theremin was drawing crowds in Europe and had earned a debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.

Theremin inspired generations of electronic instrument designers and composers. His instrument found its way into symphonic compositions, movie scores and the Beach Boys’ hit song “Good Vibrations,” but Theremin virtually disappeared after returning to the Soviet Union in 1938.

John Chowning, director of Stanford’s Doreen B. Townsend Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics — and inventor of the algorithm contained on computer chips used in electronic keyboards — sought out Theremin during a visit to Moscow last year and invited him to Stanford. Theremin arrived recently with his daughter, Natasha; granddaughter, Olga; and composer Vladimir Komarov and his wife, poet Margarita Komarova.

Theremin, whose Russian name is Lev Sergeyevich Termen, has long been the subject of myths and musical lore. He was a virtual prisoner in the Soviet Union until glasnost and perestroika made possible his travel abroad. There were rumors that he was shot as a German spy during World War II, and his name disappeared from the Soviet musical press for decades. One 1981 American reference book on electronic music lists his death date as circa 1945.

While in the United States during the 1920s and ’30s, Theremin was the toast of the intellectual community and was friends with Albert Einstein and Leopold Stokowsky. During his visit to Stanford, he was reunited with an acquaintance from that period, 97-year-old music encyclopedia author Nicolas Slonimsky.

From the 1940s to the 1960s, Theremin’s existence was top secret because, as he admitted at a news conference here Sept. 25, he was on the laboratory team that devised the Soviet surveillance device — the bug. “We tested it out on an American building (in Moscow),” he said, “but all we heard was everyday chatter — no government secrets.”

Theremin’s remarkable instrument is considered the ancestor of many of today’s electro-acoustic instruments. Robert Moog began his career by building theremin kits for his own mail-order company; Max Mathews considers his new radio baton to be a direct descendant of Theremin’s invention.

The theremin consists of a black box from which two antennae emanate: one to control pitch, the other volume. Its sound resembles a cross between a string instrument and a clarinet. It is based on the concept of heterodyning, in which two oscillators emit inaudible, high-pitched sounds whose difference in tone lies within audible range. The performer never touches the instrument: She alters the volume and pitch by waving her hands, interfering with its electromagnetic waves.

Natasha Theremin, who played her father’s instrument at a Stanford concert, demonstrated the instrument at the Sept. 25 news conference. She said it was as difficult to learn as a violin.

Mathews’ radio baton senses a player’s motion and allows him to control the pitch and tempo of electronically generated music — even to “conduct” a digitized recording of a symphony — in a fashion analogous to the theremin player’s control of the instrument’s sound.

“The difference in 80 years is that computers have digitized the player’s motion,” he said.

Because of the theremin’s eerie, other-worldly sound, it has been used in many Hollywood thrillers, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Billy Wilder’s Lost Weekend and The Day the Earth Stood Still. A Moog-built theremin provides some of the “ooowhee” sounds in the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.”

Composers from Edgard Varese to Percy Grainger were convinced that Theremin’s instrument pointed the way to an ideal, “free” music of the future.

Theremin also invented other instruments: an electronic cello with no strings; the rhythmicon, for playing multiple rhythms simultaneously; and a dancing apparatus, the terpsitone, whereby a dancer on a sensitized mat actually alters a piece of music by her body movements.

The main event of Theremin’s visit was the inaugural concert of the Stanford centennial finale, held in Frost Amphitheater on Friday, Sept. 27, and titled “Technology and Music: The Beginning and Now.” Amidst six pieces composed in 1991, the highlight of this concert was the performance of a 1917 work, Sergei Rachmaninov’s Vocalise. Originally written for soprano and orchestra, on Friday the piece featured Natasha Theremin playing the vocal parts on her father’s instrument, accompanied by Max Mathews conducting the orchestral parts with the radio baton.

The concert also included the world premiere of Soviet composer Komarov’s electro-acoustic poem “Freedom,” set on a text by the composer’s wife describing her reaction to the recent Soviet coup. “We had seen tanks in the middle of the city before,” Komarov said, “but they were always decorated, for the purposes of a parade. We knew immediately that these were different.”

Another event in connection with Theremin’s visit was a symposium about him on Sunday, Sept. 29, at the computer music research center, featuring Theremin, Slonimsky, Moog, composer and radio announcer Charles Amirkhanian, and Stanford composer Leland Smith, who created a computer simulation of the rhythmicon in 1971.


Olivia Mattis is a doctoral candidate in musicology at Stanford, writing on the composer Edgard Varese. In June of 1989, on Leon Theremin’s first visit to the West after 51 years of absence, she conducted an in-depth interview with him that was published this summer in the French magazine La Revue Musicale. She and Robert Moog are co-authoring an article on Theremin for Keyboard magazine.

[Stanford News Service 09/30/91]

Subscribe to our newsletter to be notified of new articles.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.