They Make Music With a Mere Wave of the Hand

MTLydia Kavina's great uncle Lev Theremin invented the theremin, the world's first electronic instrument, in 1920 at the age of 24.
In a small warren of rooms on the fourth floor of the Moscow Conservatory, the sound of sliding scales can be heard. There, a lone musician plays his instrument without ever touching it with his hands.

The instrument is a theremin -- invented in 1920 by Soviet musician, inventor and engineer Lev Theremin -- and it is widely considered the world's first electronic instrument, a precursor of the synthesizer.

Despite the musical significance of his invention -- and the fact that, during his 97 years Theremin played many roles, including that of engineer, inventor, musician, society dandy, prison inmate and spy -- Theremin has been largely forgotten here. But at the Conservatory's Theremin Center for Electro-Acoustic Music, theremin player Lydia Kavina labors to keep the inventor's legacy alive, and his instrument in (or near) the hands of musicians. Every Friday at the nonprofit studio is Theremin Day, when Kavina, who is Theremin's great niece in addition to being a composer and theremin player, gives free theremin lessons to a group of about 300 students.

The theremin, or tereminvox in Russian, is an electronic instrument that creates sound when the player's hands move about the instrument, disrupting the electrical fields around it. The result is a ghostly sound that has for decades been used to produce sound effects in science-fiction and horror films, including Alfred Hitchcock's "Spellbound" (1945).

But Conservatory graduate Kavina hopes -- by playing and promoting a varied repertoire on the instrument -- to expand usage of the theremin beyond cinematic soundtracks.

"For me, the theremin is interesting because of its diversity," Kavina said. "It has many uses: You can play classical, popular or jazz music on it."

Within her pop repertoire, Kavina regularly performs with the St. Petersburg electronic outfit Mess?r Chupps. But like her great uncle, Kavina is primarily a classical musician, and bases her repertoire on such musical staples as Camille Saint-Sa--ns' "The Swan," Sergei Rachmaninov's "The Storm" and Antonin Dvorak's "Humoresque." She also has composed a considerable body of original work for the instrument.

But her efforts may have been in vain.

"Except for Kavina and a few of her students, there are few musicians today who are carrying ... the classical tradition forward," said Bob Moog, the inventor of the synthesizer and head of electronic instrument manufacturer Moog Music, in an e-mail interview this week.

Kavina is one of only a handful of professional theremin players left in the world, but she is still hopeful.

"The numbers change every day," she said. "Today there might be only five, but tomorrow there could be six and the next day 15."

There is some basis for her optimism. In the United States, the theremin has enjoyed a rise in popularity in recent years, largely as the result of a 1993 documentary entitled "Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey." Moog said that in the past six years, Moog music has sold about 1,000 theremins per year.

Born in 1896 into an aristocratic St. Petersburg family, Theremin, having obtained degrees in physics and mathematics, in 1919 fell in line with the new Bolshevik regime. While working as a government researcher, Theremin discovered that the human body could act as an electrical conductor, and that the movement of hands near circuitry registered as changes in pitch. The theremin -- then called an etherphone -- was born.

As a means of promoting electrification among the Soviet people, Vladimir Lenin sent Theremin and his invention on a show-tour of the country's theaters in 1922. That tour led to an overseas assignment, first in Europe and later in the United States, where the cream of New York society turned out for the first theremin concert, after which Theremin remained in the country for a decade.

"Theremin was a Russian patriot, so he didn't leave [the Soviet Union] for political reasons," Kavina said. "He thought of this as a business trip. It never came into his mind to give up his citizenship. He knew he would return to his country."

Indeed, Soviet trade organization Amtorg had asked Theremin to ferret out U.S. industrial secrets in order to assist Soviet efforts to catch up with the technological advances of the West.

"You could say he was a spy," Kavina said.

But Theremin biographer Albert Glinsky underplayed Theremin's espionage in his biography of the inventor, "Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage" (2000), writing that Theremin's work consisted mostly of infrequent vodka sessions with gray suited-men in a Fifth Avenue bar.

In 1938, Theremin was recalled to the Soviet Union. When he arrived in Russia, Josef Stalin's purges were in full swing, and, according to Kavina, most of his friends had either left Russia or been thrown in prison. And in 1939, Theremin too was sent to a labor camp near Magadan, his reputation tarnished after his years in the West. Even after his post-World War II release, Theremin continued to work for the state, this time under the aegis of the KGB, eventually devising a wireless bug that was used to tap Spaso House, the residency of the U.S. ambassador in Moscow.

Meanwhile, the theremin had been used to produce sound for a host of U.S. science fiction movies, including "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951) and "It Came From Outerspace" (1953). By the late 1960s, though, the instrument had been eclipsed by its successor, Moog's synthesizer -- a development Theremin, isolated from events in the West, knew nothing about.

In the mid-1980s, Theremin took Kavina, who had exhibited a talent for theremin playing, under his wing.

"I was 9 years old when he started the lessons," Kavina said. "He was never a teacher in the normal sense of the word, not strict or giving homework."

Kavina continued to study the theremin, making her public debut in 1981. In 1993, Theremin died at the age of 97.

Today, a decade after the inventor's death, Kavina said the country's theremin players will not allow her great uncle's invention to be relegated to the history books.

"For so long, there's been no support for electronic music," Kavina said. "Now, we're just trying to build it up from nothing."

Lydia Kavina performs on Tuesday at the Roerich Museum's Optical Theater, located at 3 Maly Znamensky Pereulok, Bldg. 5. Metro Kropotkinskaya. She performs again on March 5 at the Bolshoi Theater, and on April 1 at the Roerich Museum. The Theremin Center is located on the fourth floor of the Conservatory, at 11 Bolshaya Nikitskaya Ulitsa. Metro Pushkinskaya, Biblioteka Imeni Lenina.