Tuesday, September 4, 2007


Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey
Director: Steven M. Martin

Somewhere early on in this amazing documentary, theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore was playing the famous instrument in the 1930s, when I began to hear Jimi Hendrix. And I saw the whole history of electronic music spiral through my imagination. Trombonist/guitarist Eddie Durham plugging his guitar into an amplifier so that he would not disappear in the fabulous textures of the Count Basie Orchestra. Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker and Les Paul. The electric guitarists of jazz, blues, rock and related musical genres. Hendrix. The Beatles and George Martin. Everything that came after that, including techno. trance, jungle, industrial music, electonica, hip-hop, trip-hop. And before them all, Léon Theremin. It gave me goose bumps.

What is amazing about this film, though, is the story of the man who invented the instrument named after himself. The film starts with him describing his memories of being born. The story doesn't get any more commonplace as it continues. Theremin invented the theremin, the "thereminvox," in 1919 in Russia, during the Russian Civil War. He found his way to the United States, where he patented his invention in 1928. He married a young African-American ballerina, Lavinia Williams, causing a huge scandal in his social circle in New York City. He was kidnapped out of his apartment in Manhattan by KGB agents in 1938 and taken back to the USSR, where he remained for many years. At first he was imprisoned, and later labored in a gold mine. He was "rehabilitated" in 1955. He invented the first ever bugging device for the Soviet Union, and was awarded its highest honor by Joseph Stalin. He invented the first motion detector for automated doors. He invented an early version of the burglar alarm. In 1991, he returned to the United States and was reunited with Clara Rockmore. He died in Moscow in 1993, aged 97.

Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey has lots of footage and still photographs of its subject, including material from his early days in New York, with the young Clara Rockmore playing a theremin.

Clara & Léon

In fact, Clara Rockmore is a major figure in the documentary, linking the past to the future. Robert Moog is also an important figure in it, as the film shows how the theremin was adopted by film composers and electronic innovators like Moog. Later, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys appears in the film's most invigorating sequence, explaining how the theremin became a crucial componet in the recording of "Good Vibrations," a seminal moment in pop culture history. The film also features Theremin's niece, Lydia Kavina, another theremin virtusoso whom Theremin himself trained.

Robert Moog describes how he was inspired as a teenager to build theremins of his own, using instructions found in a magazine; from there he went on to create the first synthesizer, and to make a significant contribution to the evolution of electronic music. Also, the film shows scenes from films such as Spellbound, The Lost Weekend and The Day the Eart Stood Still, in which the theremin was used to great effect. And it leaves no doubt that the revolution in music from acoustic to electronic that characterized the second half of the twentieth century began with this strange and fascinating man.

The film creates an impression of Léon Theremin the man as half mad scientist and half egomaniacal, driven artiste. Scenes towards the end of the film, showing his reunion with Clara Rockmore, are poignant in spite of the fact that Léon was apparently kind of a jerk. It is Clara who really wins the heart of the viewer, and anchors the story in terms of both its narrative and its emtional arc. She is just fabulous.


Lally said...

Man, what a story. I knew the vague outlines of it, but your summary was awe inspiring. I not only have to see this documentary, but I have to buy the Rockmore CD. Your blogs have become what the daily New York Times used to be for me, must reading every day.

douglang said...

Thanks, Michael. I'll burn a copy of the film for you. I've been meaning to get the Clara Rockmore CD, too. I downloaded "Good Vibrations" from the iTunes store. Couldn't believe I didn't have it. Used to have a bunch of Beach Boys music on vinyl, but never replaced it somehow.

tmorange said...

and theremin wanted his instrument to become part of european orchestral and symphonic tradition, right? which it never quite did.

douglang said...

Yes, Tom, I believe he did. Watching the documentary, it did occur to me that Léon Theremin did not realize the import of what he was doing. How could he? The same was true of Eddie Durham when he plugged his guitar into an amp. They both expected their electronic innovations to be assimilated into the existing musical culture.