Russian inventor of the theremin in 1922, a monophonic synthesizer, and of other valve-amplified instruments in the 1930s. Following commercial and public success in the USA and Hollywood, he returned to Russia in 1938 to imprisonment and obscurity. After 1945 he continued acoustic research in Moscow and reappeared at a Stockholm electronic music symposium in 1990.
Inventions The theremin was played without being touched by converting the operator's arm movements into musical tones. The instrument could produce a wide range of sounds and was mainly used to make eerie sound effects for films. Theremin also invented an electronic dance platform, called the terpsitone, in which a dancer's movements were converted into musical tones. Other inventions included a stringless electronic cello, the first syncopated rhythm machine, a colour television system, and a security system which was installed at Sing Sing and Alcatraz prisons in the USA.
Life Theremin was educated as a physicist and musician. In 1922 he demonstrated his theremin to the Soviet revolutionary leader Lenin and was sent on a tour which included sell-out concerts in Berlin, Paris, London, and New York. He established a studio in New York, where he lived 1927–38. He was then ordered to return to the USSR and sent to a Siberian labour camp during the Great Purge carried out by the Soviet leader Stalin against real and imagined enemies. During World War II Theremin worked in a military laboratory, producing a radio-controlled aircraft, tracking systems for ships and submarines, and television systems which are still in use. He also invented a miniature listening device, or ‘bug’, for the KGB. For this he received the Stalin Prize, First Class, and was allowed to live in Moscow, where he became professor of acoustics at the Moscow Conservatory of Music. He was sacked and his laboratory closed when a chance encounter with a reporter from the New York Times resulted in a newspaper article which revealed his earlier imprisonment. He continued his acoustics research, and work aimed at reversing the ageing process, until he died.