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A fascinating little biography of the creator of the Theremin

November 27, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

A fascinating little biography via Adam Black.

After his successful tour of Russia, in the late 1920s Lenin sent Theremin to Western Europe, where the legend of his mysterious instrument quickly grew. “Theremin gathered huge crowds, because it was such a fascinating thing to see this man stand in front of what looked like a little wood writing desk with two metal antennas, and with nothing but his hands in mid-air, produce these melodies, sounding like a soprano singing,” Glinsky explains. “It was considered magic at the time.”

What audiences didn’t know was that Theremin was already working as a spy for the Soviet regime. While he wowed crowds with his ghostly tunes, played on what was then called the Thereminvox, or “Theremin’s voice,” he kept his eye out for any information that might be useful to report back to his homeland. “This was the great ruse, because everybody was so focused on this magician pulling music out of thin air that he was able to gain access to industrial places and patent offices and all sorts of things,” explains Glinsky.

While living in America, the gap between Theremin’s two lives grew more dramatic. While he cavorted in New York with the likes of Albert Einstein, taught the theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore and entered into a controversial marriage with the African-American prima ballerina Lavinia Williams, his espionage mission continued.

Though the theremin’s influence continued to grow in the US, it had no effect on the life of its creator, who after his return to the USSR was caught up in Stalin’s purges and sent to a Siberian gulag. Theremin was lucky – unlike the millions who died in these labour camps, he was released after three months, as the Soviet war effort ramped up and the government realized they might actually need some of the scientists they’d banished. So officials rounded up Theremin and others and sent them to a sharashka, a prison where scientists from a variety of fields were forced to invent and research for the Soviet regime.

It was there that Theremin invented the other device for which he’s remembered. The Great Seal Bug, alternately known as “The Thing,” was an ingenious invention, a passive bug placed inside a wood carving of the Great Seal of the United States and presented to Averell Harriman, the American ambassador to Moscow, by the Soviet equivalent of Boy Scouts. Harriman happily hung the spy device on his wall. The bug was undetectable to the sweepers that were used to find such devices at the time, as it used no electricity. Spies a few houses down from the embassy would point a microwave beam in the direction of the seal, activating a small antenna that picked up noises in a resonant cavity carved out of the seal’s bald eagle’s beak. When turned on, the bug broadcast noises in Harriman’s office for anyone with a radio receiver to hear. The bug remained, unexposed, for seven years, before conversations were picked up accidentally by a British radio operator nearby, who alerted authorities and prompted an investigation.

http://daily.redbullmusicacademy.com/2017/10/theremin-instrumental-instruments

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