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Socialist Review, December 1993

Ray Brazier

Talk Back

Sound of revolution

From Socialist Review, No. 170, December 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Leon Theremin, who died last month, was a Bolshevik and physicist, who invented what is now referred to as the synthesiser during the 1920s. He also invented the first television device in 1926. The vacuum tube or valve, invented in 1915, was the invention that has enabled the development of our present day computing networks. The valve opened the way for electricity to be harnessed to operate switches which turn on or off connections between separate pieces of machinery. These pieces of machinery could then be integrated to produce more complicated machines. Theremin was the person who took this idea and applied it to music.

How did Theremin relate his scientific interest to the political ideas of the time? Interviewed in the US magazine Keyboard (Feb 1992) Theremin states:

‘Einstein was a physicist and theorist, but I was not a theorist – I was an inventor – so we did not have much in common. I had much more in kinship with someone like Vladimir Ilyich (Lenin), who was interested in how the whole world is created.’

Lenin was very interested in all inventions of the day and, after hearing about Theremin’s musical invention at a very successful electronics conference in Moscow, invited Theremin, in 1920, to perform his electronic music for him. Theremin performed Glinka’s The Lark which Lenin liked and then showed Lenin how to perform the song using ‘The Theremin’ himself.

Composers such as Varese, Schillinger and the conductor Leopold Stokowski commissioned various newly developed electronic musical instruments for use in their compositions and arrangements. Theremin developed the ‘Terpitone’ dance studio in which a dancer could manipulate sound by the use of the movement of the body.

However, during the 1930s Theremin suffered persecution at the hands of the Stalinists. On returning from America in 1939 he underwent eight months of imprisonment and intensive questioning. In 1966 Theremin was put on a state pension but continued to look for a space to work on his inventions. He found a space in Moscow’s ‘conservative’ music Conservatory. But when Nuzhin, an assistant director at the Conservatory, learnt of the nature of Theremin’s work he stated: ‘Electricity is not good for music. Electricity is to be used for electrocution.’ Nuzhin ordered all of Theremin’s work to be removed.

Despite this sort of condemnation Theremin found work at Moscow University in the department of acoustics. But again the narrow mindedness of Stalinism and the restrictions imposed upon technological development by state capitalism fell upon Theremin’s work. In 1978 the chairman of the physics department considered music not to be a science and told Theremin to vacate his room at the university.

Leon Theremin’s largely untapped genius is testimony to the wastefulness of capitalism.

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