Inventor, musician and master spy Leon Theremin honored in Moscow

Leon Theremin, the Russian musician and physicist, whose contactless instrument Termenvox revolutionized music, also served as a super spy for his homeland and revolutionized surveillance technology. In the Soviet GULag, where the deserved man landed shortly before the outbreak of World War II, he invented a passive bug that did not require any electricity and was later developed by the British secret service. Theremin (1896 to 1993), who was called Lev Termen in Russian, received the Stalin Prize and Freedom as a reward. At the Moscow Conservatory, where the qualified cellist worked after his release, the Center for Contemporary Music recently dedicated a concert with lectures to him to celebrate the invention of the Termenvox. Termen, who, despite his aristocratic origins, adopted the Bolshevik cause and enjoyed the trust of Lenin, was an honest scientist, assured the head of the center, Vladimir Tarnopolski, who had met the elderly pioneer several times in the 1980s. Termen’s thing was the technical progress, he was hardly interested in ideology.

Termenvox player Olesja Rostowskaja recalled that the spherical sound of the first electronic instrument is known today primarily from satirical or eerie films, where, as with the “Simpsons” or in the Hannibal-Lecter series, it is grotesque to psychedelic Evokes atmosphere. Theres had high musical demands. In his last interview, the ninety-three-year-old admitted that as a cellist he was plagued by the contrast between the lightness of the music and the mechanical hardships of its production, that like an orchestra conductor he wanted to produce tones solely through body gestures. Then in the Rachmaninov Hall the studio for new music played the neoclassical fantasy for termenvox, oboe, string quartet and piano by Bohuslav Martinů, which was written in 1944 when Termen was in prison. The soloist Rostowskaja trailed the air around her instrument so virtuously and precisely that one really thought to hear a kind of Aeolian cello in the finely vibrating vocal line.

The Termenvox works on the principle of an electromagnetic distance sensor, which Termen discovered during the First World War as an employee of the laboratory for electrical oscillation near Petersburg and also used for alarm systems. The technology and music enthusiast Lenin, to whom the all-rounder in 1922 presented his inventions in the Kremlin, intoned a Glinka melody on the Termenvox and sent the genius as an ambassador for his electrification plan GOELRO through the far back country. Back then, Termen also hoped to immortalize by freezing bodies. He wanted to freeze himself after his death and was shocked when Lenin’s body was embalmed rather than frozen.


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