Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey

Directed by Steven M. Martin

What is a Theremin? Oh, you’ve heard it before. In the songs "Good Vibrations" by The Beach Boys and "Whole Lotta Love" by Led Zeppelin. And in sci-fi classics such as The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Bride of Frankenstein and slick thrillers like Spellbound and The Lost Weekend. It’s the sound that registers to your ears as "Standard Science Fiction sound" You know. oooooooohhhhh. WHHEEEEEEEEEEEE. ooooooooohhhh.

Well, Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, is a new feature length documentary all about the inventor of the instrument (and, as a result, the first pioneer of electronic music), the Russian professor Leon "Lev" Theremin, who invented the wave machine in 1920 where you could change the pitch and the volume of the machine just by moving your hands and fingers in front of it. It set the music world on its ear at concerts throughout the world, including a personal demonstration for Lenin at the Kremlin as well as sold out shows at the Royal Albert Hall in London, the Paris Opera House, and Carnegie Hall in New York City.

In 1928 Theremin established a studio in New York City, catering to high society patrons interested in his work, which included advanced electronic instruments, light shows, an electronic dance platform, and even a color television system. But in 1938, Professor Theremin became a victim of Stalin’s paranoid purge. Kidnapped from his Manhattan studio in front of his American wife, black ballet dancer Lavina Williams, by the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB) and dragged back to Russia, he was thrown into prison for ‘anti- Soviet’ propaganda. Reports of his execution were widely circulated in the west.

After surviving a stretch in Magadan, the most brutal of the Siberian labor camps, Professor Theremin was sent to a military prison and put to work on top secret military electronics which culminated with his creation of the infamous cold war espionage tool, the electronic eavesdropping device known as the ‘bug’. He supervised the bugging of both the American embassy and Stalin’s personal apartment. For this work he was awarded the Stalin Prize, First Degree, one of the USSR’s highest honors. Eventually ‘rehabilitated,’ Professor Theremin began teaching at the Moscow Conservatory of Music, but was thrown out for continuing his work in electronic music. Post war Soviet doctrine declared that no modern music be performed and Theremin was told that electricity should not be used to create music, but should be reserved for the execution of traitors. Taking a position at a technical institute in Moscow, Professor Theremin worked on routine assignments until his retirement, largely unaware of the influence his instrument had on American culture. He had originally wanted it to be recognized as a valid musical instrument, playing Mozart and Bach, but the thing has such a specific sound, like a viola on a bender or a saw having a fit of depression...melancholically muted trumpet almost...that it ended up defining the sound of ‘eerie’ in countless movie soundtracks.

Complete with interviews with Robert Moog (who grew up building Theremins from a diagram found in a hobby magazine) and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, "Theremin" is a fascinating, frightening and often hilarious film about the circuitous route one’s contribution to the world can make. In fact, Professor Theremin’s great niece, Lydia Kavina, taught by her great uncle how to play the instrument, is presently performing on the Theremin in Hamburg, at the Thalia Theatre, in Robert Wilson and Tom Waits’ productions of ALICE (Alice in Wonderland).

In addition, "Theremin" is also a love story, telling for the first time of Professor Theremin’s romance with Clara Rockmore, the Russian violin prodigy whose mastery of the Theremin demonstrated to the serious music community the potential of electronic music. Their courtship is detailed with rare home movies and their reunion after 40 years is featured in the film. Hearing Miss Rockmore (who labored for years in her search for Professor Theremin behind the iron curtain and whose artistry earned the Theremin respect in serious musical circles) play the Theremin alone is worth the price of admission.