qatsi (qatsi) wrote,

The Gulag Glissando

Book Review: Theremin - Ether Music and Espionage, by Albert Glinsky
This is a rather mixed book: most of the content is interesting, but there is a sense that one section in particular has been padded, with details of what seems like every concert or appearance Theremin made in every Smallville, USA, in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Maybe this is fulfilling the book's remit as its part in the series "Music in American Life", but to me it just feels like the author gave up any idea of editing or selecting in this section.

However, on either side, the story is more interesting. Theremin was born in the 1890s into a well-to-do middle-class family, and having studied physics, survived World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution by being indispensable as a radio engineer. His experiments with variable capacitance, and in particular the effect the human body had on nearby electrical circuits, led to the development of his unusual musical instrument (as well as burglar alarms, child safety devices, and automatic doors). Approved by Lenin and Stalin, the Theremin was an example of Soviet progress and he was sent on a tour of Europe and the USA, notionally to demonstrate the instrument and develop its commercial potential, but also to make industrial contacts and supply the Soviet authorities with technical information. In the event, Theremin stayed in the USA for several years, with an Enron-like existence, incorporating several unsuccessful companies and accumulating debts which he ignored.

His return to the USSR in the late 1930s was during the Great Terror, and as someone who had spent several years associating with foreign powers he was an easy target. The outbreak of World War II could not be described as fortunate for many people, but it was the saving of Theremin, with his miserable ordeal in Siberia cut short as he was returned to Moscow to work in a "special prison" dreamed up by Beria, where he and other engineers worked on aeronautics as part of the war effort. After the war he developed various surveillance devices, including a rather infamous one used in the US embassy in Moscow for several years. Ironically it was in this period that the Theremin enjoyed quite a revival in the US, being used often for soundtracks in sci-fi, and attracting the attention of one Robert Moog, who developed the ideas further into the synthesizer.

After his sentence had passed, and in the Khruschev thaw, Theremin hoped to return to his previous life, but found this too difficult. Electronic music had fallen considerably out of favour, and his time would have been terribly frustrating for many, but he seems to have borne it stoically. In the Gorbachev years he enjoyed a restored reputation internationally (many assumed he had died in the Gulag; it had not been possible for him to communicate even with relatives after working for the KGB), but at home he still lived modestly.

The book is written in a light and often chatty style, which does not work particularly well for me, but it has clearly been thoroughly researched, and Glinsky cites his own and others' interviews with Theremin. Even so, his subject was very enigmatic and no doubt (like many others in similar positions at the time) buried some details of his life so thoroughly that they will never be discovered.
Tags: books, music
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