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Leon Theremin

Leon Theremin, scientist, musician, and inventor, has been called the father of electronic music. Born Lev Termen in Russia in 1896, his invention of the Theremin (sometimes called a Thereminvox) in 1919 merged his love of science with his passion for music to create one of the world’s first (if not the first) electronic instruments. Theremin conceived the idea for the instrument that bears his name while experimenting with radio vacuum tubes. The Theremin is played with no physical contact from the performer. Pitch and volume are dictated by the proximity of the player’s hands to the Theremin’s two antennae.

Theremin relocated to the United States and received a U.S. patent for the instrument in 1928. While in the States, Theremin continued to push the boundaries of electronic music with Theremin performances at Carnegie Hall as well as conducting the first electronic orchestra, made up of Theremins and other radical new electronic instruments of the day. Leon Theremin became integrated in the New York social scene, which he exploited to fund his further exploration of electronic instruments and devices. One of the devices Theremin had worked on was a dance platform in which the dancer’s movements would control the light and sounds of the stage.

It has been reported that Theremin was abducted from his New York apartment in 1938 by the KGB, and returned to Russia to work on special projects for the Russian government. Among the technological advancements credited to Theremin are surveillance “bugs” for monitoring conversations. Ironically, during his “imprisonment” in Russia, the Theremin instrument found wide use in horror movie soundtracks of the 1940s and science fiction movies of the 1950s. After his release in 1956, Theremin began teaching at the Moscow Conservatory of Music, where he was let go due to his continued pursuit of electronic music and instruments. Theremin spent his later years teaching the performance of the Theremin. He passed away in 1993.

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