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THEREMIN: Ether Music and Espionage.

By Albert Glinsky. Univ. of Illinois Press. 403 pp. $34.95

In 1920, Russian engineer Leon Theremin arranged a demonstration for colleagues at his Petrograd research institute. He stood in the front of the room, "his arms outstretched, his two hands hovering, fluttering, and diving in air" around two antennas attached to a high-frequency oscillator, according to Glinsky. From a rudimentary loudspeaker came the melody of Camille Saint-Saens's "Swan." Theremin (1896-1993) had developed a musical instrument that could be played without physical contact.

Theremin and his "etherphone" (soon called the "theremin") won worldwide acclaim. He played concerts in the Soviet Union, Europe, and the United States, for audiences that included V. I. Lenin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Arturo Toscanini, and George Bernard Shaw. Some reviewers likened the ethereal music to "celestial voices," though Shaw remarked that he had heard pleasanter sounds from a tissue-covered comb. Theremin believed that his instrument, inexpensively mass-produced, would replace the parlor piano. Without any training, people could "wave their hands and express their own musical personality," he said, "providing they possess a musical feeling." He moved to New York City and tried to market the instrument while working as a musician, teacher, inventor, and perhaps spy.

In 1938, Theremin returned to the Soviet Union--and disappeared. Caught up in Stalin's purges, he was imprisoned for eight years and then assigned to a secret research facility. (One of his Cold War inventions came to light in 1952 when a British radio operator in Moscow heard U.S. ambassador George F. Kennan dictating letters. Technicians searched the ambassador's house and found a listening device hidden inside a bas-relief Great Seal of the United States, a hand-carved goodwill gift from Soviet boy scouts seven years earlier.) Invisible and presumed dead for 25 years, Theremin reappeared in the mid-1960s, around the time the Beach Boys used a theremin in "Good Vibrations." During the remainder of his long life, he was honored as the father of electronic music.

Glinsky, a composer who teaches at Mercyhurst College in Pennsylvania, faced many obstacles in writing Theremin's life story. "Theremin routinely supplied different versions of the same incident to different interviewers at different times," he writes. "And when he was finally politically free enough to tell his own story he could no longer be counted on to tell it reliably." In addition, Theremin's contemporaries were mostly dead, and many of the materials were incomplete or infected with historical revisionism.

Through indefatigable research, Glinsky has nonetheless managed to provide a nuanced, comprehensive portrait. Though he is no wordsmith--paragraphs lack transitions, characters are introduced out of place, the chronology meanders--is biography is a triumph. The tale is so bizarrely dramatic that the book is nearly impossible to put down.

Glinsky skillfully uses the inventor's life to contrast communism and capitalism. After Theremin designed a television during the 1920s, for example, the Soviet government confiscated it, stamped it classified, and transformed it into a surveillance device for border guards. During his decade in the United States, by contrast, the Radio Corporation of America hired Theremin as part of its effort to place a television in every living room. "The divergence of Soviet and American culture can be almost unfathomable," Glinsky observes. "And it would be laughable, had it not been so tragic and so typical."

Steve Weinberg is the author of Telling the Untold Story: How Investigative Reporters Are Changing the Craft of Biography (1992).
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:WEINBERG, STEVE
Publication:The Wilson Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2001
Words:566
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