The theremin holds the distinction of being the only instrument that is played without being touched. Using a human body’s natural capacitance to manipulate radio waves, the theremin was also the first electronic instrument and created a sensation upon its launch by Soviet scientist Leon Theremin in the 1920s. It was the stuff of myriad sci-fi B-movie soundtracks as well as the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” and modern theremins are still advertised in the pages of this magazine. But that’s only the beginning of the story.
Leon Theremin’s life was an amazing odyssey. Not only did he create his eponymous musical instrument, but also early motion detection security systems and the first Russian television – all of which was put to use in Lenin and Stalin’s U.S.S.R. to spy on not only the West, but the country’s own citizens, as well.
The theremin also became an espionage tool but in a different manner. Leon Theremin traveled throughout Europe and the U.S. with his instrument as a passport, giving concerts that were propaganda showcases for the brilliance of Communism. But during his journeys, he also served as a Soviet spy, passing back data on Western industrial technology to the Russian apparat.
Leon Theremin became the toast of New York society in the ’30s, then disappeared mysteriously at the hands of Soviet agents. Spirited back to the U.S.S.R., he was exiled to a Siberian labor camp in the midst of the country’s paranoia. There he worked for almost three decades designing further spy tools and bugging devices, including the famous “bugs” in the U.S. embassy in Moscow.
This biography of the man and his bizarre musical instrument is part electronic saga, part spy thriller. It’s a great read, telling the story of a man caught at the crucible between Communism, Capitalism, and the Cold War.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Feb. ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.