In electronic music's history, mystery and Cold War —related speculation have shrouded the life and work of one man:Leon Theremin. Albert Glinsky's biography Theremin: Ether Musicand Espionage pieces together, for the first time in English,the facts about the inventor once known in his homeland as“the Russian Edison.”

Glinsky creates spy novel — worthy suspense as he unravelsthe schemes Theremin and his associates used to cloak their work.The author explores a number of interesting themes, includingTheremin's lifelong interest in reanimating the dead.

All Things Theremin

Lev Sergeyevich Termen was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in1896. As a young man, he excelled in science, engineering, andmusic. That interesting subject combination helped him —while still in his early 20s — to conceive the electronicinstrument that would bear his name.

The theremin's success gave the inventor opportunities unheardof for Soviet citizens of the time. Theremin toured Europepromoting his instrument, which was as much a propaganda tool as hewas. The concertizing led to a visit to New York City, whereTheremin remained from 1927 to 1938. The revelations aboutTheremin's sudden departure from New York under mysteriouscircumstances and his whereabouts for several decades are what makethe book most historically important.

As expected, Glinsky details the theremin's production andmarketing. He also covers Theremin's many other inventions,including an early form of television, a polyphonic keyboardinstrument, an aircraft altimeter, electronic security devices, andthe bugging technologies used by the KGB.

In addition, the book documents Theremin's interaction with manyimportant personalities of the 20th century. In the Soviet Union hegave a private demonstration of his “etherphone” toSoviet leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (who believed it would be“an ideal propaganda tool for electricity”). In themusical world, Theremin worked with composers Joseph Schillinger,Nicolas Slonimsky, Edgard Varèse, and Henry Cowell (for whomhe built the rhythmicon), and conductor Leopold Stokowski.

Glinsky's attention to historic detail vividly displays thearbitrary manner in which millions of Soviet citizens' lives weredevastated by those in power. It's difficult to imagine how anyonecould survive what Theremin was subjected to, let alone remainproductive. Yet he outlived the political system that controlled— often destroyed — his work and kept him asecond-class citizen. Glinsky portrays Theremin as a man determinedto fulfill his creative urges despite continual setbacks. WhenTheremin emerges from the shadows in Moscow in an unexpectedencounter with his old friend and theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore,one cannot help but marvel at the melding of luck, cunning, andnaïveté.

Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage is an importantbook for readers interested in the theremin or electronic music'shistory. The book is exhaustively researched and engaginglywritten, and it includes an insightful forward by Robert Moog.Glinsky's exceptional portrayal of Leon Theremin is more than amere music-related biography. I recommend Theremin: Ether Musicand Espionage to anyone who enjoys reading about 20th-centuryhistory or Soviet-American relations.

Overall EM Rating (1 through 5): 5

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