(In which we consider Léon Theremin.)

Posted by Job O Brother, December 2, 2008 12:04pm | Post a Comment
angel clock
The other day, a customer at Amoeba Music stopped me and asked:

“Do you have the correct time?”

Long after I told him what time it was, I still pondered his specification of  the type of time he wanted. That adjective, correct. What had transpired in his days of life that he should deem it wise to emphasize that he didn’t want just any time quoted to him; he didn’t want me to make up a time (“Oh, it’s a quarter after eight billion o’clock”); he also didn’t want to fall trap to any inaccurate time, as perhaps others who’d come before me had given him. No, he wanted the correct time.

And while I would have – on this I vow – I would have given him the correct time regardless of whether or not he had made certain to choose that sort of information, I feel that, by both catering to his need and also not remarking on why I thought it odd he should make lengths to get only “correct” time, I have somehow contributed to his neurosis that, unless he asks for correct time, alternate times may well be offered.

What does any of this have to do with theremins? Very little, and for that, I apologize.

So, without further ado, please enjoy the following clip:

The woman is the above clip is the splendiferous Clara Rockmore, widely regarded as the finest theremin player of all time. A pupil of the instrument’s inventor, Léon Theremin, she remained a stalwart champion of the man even after he suddenly and mysteriously disappeared behind the Iron Curtain in 1938.

For those of you unfamiliar with the theremin, here’s a brief overview:

Léon Theremin invented the (coincidentally named) theremin in 1919 quite by accident, when his desire for a contraption that would allow him to make fresh, hot toast went awry. After many messy and frustrating nights were spent cleaning bread crumbs and margarine out of his workshop, he finally adhered to his pet chimp’s advice to market the failed toaster as an electronic instrument.
Léon Theremin, anticipating how high the slice of sourdough will pop-up.

Complications arose because the Soviets had a strict ordinance against any music that could eventually be used as incidental tracks for sci-fi motion pictures. (Lenin himself lived in fear of The Day the Earth Stood Still, a movie that, though it wouldn’t be filmed for another 32 years, still gave him nightmares so bad he’d have to be lifted from his underwater sleeping lair and spoon-fed bowls-full of Ovaltine to soothe him.

Lenin LOVED Ovaltine. He’d often eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, instead of the more traditional Russian meal of potatoes, beets and Pinkberry.)
Early Soviet propaganda

Consequently, Léon Theremin traveled to the United States of America (or, USA, for short). It was there he found fame and fortune. His marriage, in the 1930’s, to Lavinia Williams, caused quite a stir, though not, as many reputable historians have agreed, because she was black. It was for a different reason. But I’m not telling you what it was. So there. Meh meh moo moo.

In 1938, Léon Theremin – by now going under the name T. Diddy – was kidnapped at gunpoint and returned to the Soviet Union (or, Союз Советских Социалистических Республик, for short). His captors were astonished upon their return to discover that, when they peeled away the lovely Christmas paper they used to conceal him, it was Theremin the man. It was, in fact, his pet chimp they were after – not the inventor! But the Soviets, being an open-minded and adaptable bunch of chaps, decided to go ahead with their plans and placed Léon Theremin in a traveling circus, billing him as Yoyo, the Fast Dancing Chimp.
Early advertisement for Theremin's show.

Sadly, Léon Theremin eventually died of a banana overdose. Eerily, this happened November 3, 1993 – just one year and a couple months before Kurt Cobain took his life on April 5, 1994.

Even so, Theremin’s invention has lived on and influenced many future, electronic virtuosos, such as Wendy Carlos, Robert Moog, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

For those of you interested in learning more about the hot, sultry, sexy story of Léon Theremin, I encourage you to read things about him that aren’t complete lies. For the rest of us, this humble blog is enough.

Next week, I’ll be telling you the thrilling life’s story of Isadora Duncan, the first ballerina to conquer the Moon-men!

Below is a clip of Lydia Kavina, another theremin master, still living and producing work. You can find recordings by both her and Clara Rockmore in the avant-garde classical section of Amoeba Music.

Relevant Tags

Day The Earth Stood Still (1), Sci-fi (51), Ussr (4), Lydia Kavina (1), Clara Rockmore (2), Leon Theremin (1), Theremin (6), Amoeba Music (73), Russia (4), Lavinia Williams (1), Monkeys (2), Wendy Carlos (4), Robert Moog (4)