Inventor and part-time agent

Legend has it that the thereminvox was invented by chance when Lev Termen was experimenting with radio receivers in 1920. Two years later however the instrument was granted propagandistic honours: Russian leader Lenin had heard of Termen's fascinating instrument and was eager to support it as a proof for Russia's technological leadership. Hence, Termen was allowed to play outside the Soviet Union - with great success.

In 1928, Termen decided to stay in New York in order to promote his instrument (and in some cases act as a spy). Ten years later, Termen vanished under mysterious circumstances and turned up in the Soviet Union where he was imprisoned for eight years. In the Western world, little was known about his whereabouts for decades to come, but in 1990 Lev Termen attended a Swedish festival for electronic music, where he was given a warm welcome. 3 years later, Termen died.

His instrument however lives on, not only thanks to artists like Lydia Kavina, but also thanks to all the scientists who are so enthusiastic about the unique user interface of the thereminvox. Some say this is the most user-friendly and simple interface imaginable, and some, notably the scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), have even incorporated it into computer environments. Some modern musical instruments like the Alesis Air Synth also feature the thereminvox-interface - mostly for the visual effect of the user controlling the instrument, though.

The thereminvox has always been of interest for instrument manufacturers, over the decades there have been quite some copies and alterations of the original instrument, and from time to time there seems to be a revival of the thereminvox, though not on an impressively large scale. One of the best-known manufacturers to build a decent "re-issue" of the original is Bob Moog's company Moog (formerly known as Big Briar). Moog has always been fascinated by Lev Termen's invention and keeps close contact to Lydia Kavina. Moog's creations come in a solid wooden housing and use modern electronics instead of radio tubes of course. There is even a MIDI-version of the instrument, impressive in size and quite expensive.

On the other hand, a thereminvox is not too complex an instrument, so many experienced tinkerers build one on their own: some tubes, coils, capacitors and other electronic bits and bobs is basically all you need, and of course a bit of soldering is required. And isn't it a strange thing that in an age of standardized and computerized synthesizer sounds such a simple instrument as the thereminvox has still not been forgotten?

(rh 05/MMI)

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>> tVox Tour theremin

An early replica of the original thereminvox, built by the RCA

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= Inventor and part-time agent