Obituary: Leon Theremin

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The Independent Online
Leon Theremin, inventor: born 24 August 1896; Professor of Acoustics, Moscow Conservatory of Music 1967-77; died Moscow 3 November 1993.

LEON THEREMIN was one of the great unsung inventors of the 20th century. He is best known for the Theremin, the first electronic musical instrument. Created in 1920, the Theremin, played without being touched, was the direct precursor of the modern synthesiser as well as being used as the definitive 'eerie' sound of in countless films.

Theremin, known in Russia as Termen, was a classically educated physicist and musician. In 1922, at the age of 26, he was given an audience with Lenin to demonstrate his electronic device. He was subsequently sent on a world tour, including sold-out concerts in Berlin, the Paris Opera, Royal Albert Hall, and Carnegie Hall, in New York. Theremin established a studio in New York and lived there from late 1927 until 1938 when he was ordered to return to the Soviet Union by the NKVD (precursor to the KGB) and sent to a Siberian labour camp during the great Stalin purge. During the Second World War he was placed in a military laboratory where he contributed to the Soviet war effort and invented radio-controlled aircraft and a miniature listening device, or 'bug', for the KGB. Theremin also invented systems for the tracking of ships and submarines as well as early television systems that are still in use.

After receiving the Stalin Prize, First Degree, for his work on the 'bug', Theremin lived as a free man in Moscow and eventually worked as Professor of Acoustics at the Moscow Conservatory of Music. Theremin was considered long dead in the West until a chance encounter with a reporter from the New York Times. After a subsequent newspaper article revealed his previous incarceration he was sacked and his laboratory closed. Theremin then worked at the Moscow Polytechnic Institute, continuing his research in acoustics and a system of reversing the ageing process until his death.

In 1989 Theremin was honoured at an Electronic Music Festival in Bourge, in France, and in 1991 at Stanford University, in California. Theremin also returned to New York in 1991 for the first time since 1938 and was reunited with former colleagues, including the celebrated Theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore whom he had wished to marry in the Thirties.

Other inventions include an electronic dance platform, called the Terpsitone, in which the motions of a dancer were transferred directly to changes in pitch, allowing the synchronisation between sound and movement; an electronic cello with no strings; the Rhythmicon, an instrument combining rhythm and high pitch that was the first syncopated rhythm machine; a colour television system in the 1930s; and a security system installed at Sing Sing prison in New York and Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay.

Theremin was married three times. His first marriage, to a Russian woman, was dissolved in the early 1930s. He then courted Clara Resienberg, who married the noted entertainment attorney and Broadway producer Robert Rockmore. He married the American ballet dancer Lavinia Williams in New York in 1936, but never saw her again after leaving New York in 1938. After the Second World War, he married a Russian woman who bore him twin daughters, in 1948, Natalya and Helena.

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