León Theremin discovered his instrument while studying electromagnetic waves at the request of the Russian government. He was researching motion detection using the waves when he discovered that the presence of an object in an electromagnetic field altered the frequency reproduced by the device. His interest in the arts led him to use this to create music.
León Theremin’s discovery served to develop a number of inventions, but the key laid in the way the theremin worked. Sound is produced when something vibrates. With a theremin, this vibration is produced by an electric current generated by the instrument by means of a complex system of valves and coils. This electric current creates an electromagnetic field which is interfered with by the musician’s hands by placing them close to the antennas, controlling the oscillations of the current and creating sound waves. The current produced is at a frequency beyond the range of the human ear and therefore this piece of equipment also mixes two currents to change the frequency and make it audible. The music flows from the instrument without the hands of the musician ever touching it. Theremin approached his invention, placed his hands around its two antennas and the music began to sound. It seemed like magic.
In 1922, Theremin presented the instrument to Lenin. The leader of the Soviet Union was so impressed that he sent him off on a European tour to demonstrate the genius of Russian inventors. As part of the tour, Theremin played his instrument in iconic venues such as the Albert Hall in London and the Opera in Paris.
Years later, in 1928, the People’s Commissariat for Education sent him to the United States. He lived there for nine years, set up a company and a laboratory in New York, patented the theremin and played in some of the country’s leading venues. It was there he met Clara Rockmore, who became the first female theremin soloist. Much speculation surrounds his time in the United States and even more on the subject of his mysterious disappearance in 1937. It is said that he was a spy, that he returned to Russia to help his country in the upcoming war, that he was kidnapped by the KGB, and so on. The truth is that when he arrived back in the Soviet Union he was sent to a gulag in Siberia and then to a work camp in Omsk and later still to Moscow, where he was made to do forced labour in a laboratory until 1947.
He re-emerged in 1964, when he was freed. He then began work at the department for acoustic research and recording at the Moscow Conservatory and from 1971 he did the same at the Lomonosov University. He devoted himself to research for the last 20 years of his life. He died in Moscow in 1993.