Friday, June 28, 2013

BookTip XV: Theremin - Ether Music And Espionage

Wow... It took me quite some time to complete reading this book, but it was worth it... and i believe I have never read such an interesting biography as this one.
Maybe it has to do with the broad spectrum of interests that this book covers, maybe just because Lev (Leon) Termen (Theremin) had such an interesting life.

Theremin - Ether Music and Espionage
by Albert Glinsky
Before i started reading this book i only knew a few things about Theremin; his Russian origin and his main
invention the Theremin (created in 1919, patented in 1928), originally known as the ætherphone/etherphone or termenvox/thereminvox.

Theremin lived from 1896 to 1993 and this book takes you along on his journey through a very interesting time with some of the world's major events of the last century: the Russian Revolution, two world wars, America's Great Depression, Stalin's purges, the cold war and perestroika.
It clearly shows how Theremin lived a life between communism and capitalism and "from the KGB to Macy's store windows, Alcatraz to the Beach Boys, Hollywood thrillers to the United Nations, Joseph Stalin to Shirley Temple."

The book is very well written and closely follows Theremin's life from the time when he came up with his first invention - the only instrument that is played without being touched, and also shows that he wasn't just a 'one-hit-wonder'.
In fact, he invented loads of things and was a true electronic pioneer that stood on the base of techniques that we still use today like burglar-alarms, television, those loops in the asphalt near traffic-lights and even RFID

A few of Theremin's other inventions on a row:
Burglar alarm, or "Signalling Apparatus" which used the Theremin effect (1920s)
Electromechanical television – Nipkow disk with mirrors instead of slots (ca. 1925)
Terpsitone – platform that converts dance movements into tones (1932)
Theremin cello – an electronic cello with no strings and no bow, using a plastic fingerboard, a handle for volume and two knobs for sound shaping (ca. 1930)
Keyboard theremin (ca. 1930), looking like a small piano, "with hornlike tones"
The Great Seal bug, also known as "The Thing" – one of the first passive covert listening devices; first used by the USSR for spying (1945 or earlier)
The Buran eavesdropping device (1947 or earlier)
Rhythmicon – world's first drum machine (1931)*

The book is IMHO must-read for Theremin players, but also a good read for people who are only interested in lifestyle and culture in the first half of the last century.
I can't wait to get a real Theremin now... I must say my skills on the Doepfer Theremin are improving after reading this book, so i might take the step to buy a 'real' one this year... an Etherwave or a ThereMAX for example.

Rhythmicon from Thomas Patteson on Vimeo.
" Ancestor of the Drum Machine: Leon Theremin's Rhythmicon
The Russian inventor Leon Theremin is best known for the eponymous instrument he created around 1919. But another invention of Theremin's is perhaps even more prophetic of later developments in electronic music: the Rhythmicon, produced in 1931 at the behest of the American composer Henry Cowell. 
This device allowed for the real-time generation of complex rhythmic patterns thought to be un-performable by humans. 
 Each successive note on the keyboard triggered a division of the basic beat in whole number ratios: the second key beating twice for each basic beat, the third key beating three times, and so on.
This video shows the Russian scholar Andrey Smirnov demonstrating the how the Rhythmicon is played.
The device shown in the video is likely the later version, developed in the 1960s and now housed in the Theremin Center in Moscow."

Theremin - Ether Music And Espionage by Albert Glinsky
(Music in American Life) - ISBN - 978-0-252-07275-8
More info about the writer and the book at

*Source / more about Theremin and his inventions on Wikipedia:

Also worth watching:
the documentary 'Theremin: an electronic odyssey' - Trailer
, plus the 'Moscow Electro'/ 'Elektro Moskva' documentary,
that also seems to have interviews with Theremin.
(thanks for the tip @adicarter)

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