Soul-In-A-Box: The Theremin As Soviet Myth
A mysterious wooden podium is on the stage. It is gutted out, naked, and otherworldly. Its innards have been removed and replaced by valves hot with energy, nestled among transistors and capacitors in brutal circuitry. Two chrome antennae stick out of the wooden box, one vertical, the other a loop going out the side. The player approaches the apparatus, but does not touch it. Instead, he outstretches his arm like a conductor readying an orchestra, or a sorcerer readying a spell. The right hand moves in jagged, sudden positions forward and back, looking mechanical and robotic. The left hand is in a constant ebb and flow, as though it is petting something beautiful or polishing something pristine. The player looks like a cyborg, caught between human artistry and mathematical precision. The sound that leaps out of the machine can be described in the same way. It is impossibly natural and is the closest thing to a human voice that has ever been produced by an instrument, but the voice is trapped without consonants, words, or pauses. It is an endless cascade of vowels and vibrato speaking without saying anything. The heart transplanted into the wooden box adapts to what it has and sings its pure, sad song. All the while, the player is completely separate from his instrument, and appears less a performer than he does a guide.
There’s something very tragic about the sound of the theremin- one can picture a human ensnared in the machine, or a soul longing to leap out of the object. Perhaps this is why theremins have been utilized for scoring the robot-ridden science fiction films of the 1950s, where Cold War era fear of alien entities and fear of technology were combined to provoke audiences throughout America. One of these films is the now classic The Day The Earth Stood Still. The plot of The Day centers around two alien beings arriving on earth- one a destructive robot and the other a humanoid that can communicate. The humanoid, Klaatu, claims that without human oversight the robot could destroy the planet. The audio motif of the robot is a shrieking, wavering theremin howl. The instrument that requires the proximity of a human to guide its voice adds aural depth to the machine that requires the organic being to keep it in check. The Day The Earth Stood Still is a parable about technology running amuck without an overseer, illustrating the negative consequences of man-made intelligence and power. The theremin illustrates the positive relationship between the organism and the circuitry- the magic box can read and project human creativity into bigger and better dimensions. To observers of the instrument, it doesn’t create sound by way of tangible, human manipulation. It observes and translates emotion- every thought, every subtlety of the hand, and every vibration of muscle- into electrons and volts, a pure extension of humanity. We are the humanoid arbiters vigilantly watching the soul we’ve created, not dictating what it does but merely observing. Playing an instrument without touching it is a role-reversing experience.
The story of the instrument’s creator, Lev Theremin, is a grand epic that seems to be more Russian than borscht and bears. He fought in the Civil War in 1917, manned a radio station for Bolshevik broadcasting, created espionage devices used in the Cold War, fled to the West, mysteriously fled back to the motherland, and slaved in the Gulag. Throughout his incredible journey, Theremin was known as a respected artist and inventor. His instrument was the product of fervent interest in radio waves as communication and expression. The instrument works by creating two oscillating radio waves that can be detuned by the proximity of one’s hands to the machine, dropping the pitch of the oscillation into the range of human hearing. Theremin’s titular creation fascinated the Russian government. Electricity and its uses were important to the Soviet view of the future. It had already been incorporated into farming and production, and that it could be used in music caught the eye of political leaders. Vladimir Lenin personally invited Theremin to perform a concert at the capitol and even learned a few songs himself. Lenin was so enthralled by this odd Russian novelty that he ordered 600 to be created and proposed Theremin go on a nationwide tour. The theremin was an ideal synthesis of science and art, industry and human creativity- the perfect companion to the ideal Soviet cyborg. Lenin died before this vision was realized.
Around this time the prospect of a new, genuinely Russian tradition of electronic music faded away with the changing of the national leader. Theremin had inspired many 1920s composers, with the artists writing solos and symphonies utilizing the magic machine. But until the 1980s, new and inventive art forms were seen as a product of Western influence and were discouraged from entering Soviet culture. Theremin’s vision of electricity as expression faded as Stalinist industrialization worked its way across Russia. In many ways, the theremin represents a lost dream of creating the new beauty of classical music- pushing the boundaries but respecting the past, appealing to new listeners while honoring old institutions. What began as a principled profession has become a sort of in-joke among musicians and film score composers. The theremin has not experienced sustained popularity since its creation. When it does appear in popular culture, it’s usually a gimmick- serving as a literal representation of the “Good Vibrations” the Beach Boys sang of or a go-to gag for modern space alien references. However, the instrument is seeing a slow revival through the internet, from theremin covers of video game theme songs to instructions on how to make your own singing soul-in-a-box. Indeed, the object is infinitely appealing in an era in which society expresses itself electronically.
The Minneapolis/ St. Paul International Airport used to have an interactive advertisement in which the motion of passersby would make shapes explode into being on the wall beside them. The people walking by, regardless of age, would hop, or stop in their tracks, or wave their arms above their heads, or make any other silly motion, and consume the colors that came leaping out of their shadows. They would cease their motion when they realized that they weren’t creating the images, only guiding them. The theremin is otherworldly for the same reason. It is a man-made artist, not an extension of the artist. We do not create the song of the theremin. We conduct it with the poetry of our left hand and the precision of our right.
Nick Rea – 20 November 2009
1 The Day The Earth Stood Still. Dir. Robert Wise. By Edmund H. North and Harry Bates. Perf. Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal. 20th Century Fox, 2009. DVD.
2 Nesturkh, Natalia. “The Theremin and its Inventor in Twentieth-Century Russia.” Leonardo Music Journal 6 (1996): 57-60. Print.
3 Froehner, Robert. “The Theremin.” Theremin-Saw. 2009. Web. <http://www.theremin-saw.com/theremin.htm>.
4 Lenin looked towards electricity as a solution to the ultimate pre-revolution duality- proletariat and bourgeoisie. “Electrification will provide a link between town and country, will put an end to the division between town and country…backwardness, ignorance, poverty, disease, and barbarism,” he wrote. When these sentiments were echoed in Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, this Leninist ideal became apparent.
5 Montague, Stephen. “Rediscovering Leon Theremin.” Tempo.177 (1991): 18-23. Print.
6 Nesturkh, Natalia. “The Theremin and its Inventor in Twentieth-Century Russia.” Leonardo Music Journal 6 (1996): 57-60. Print.