Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey

Thursday August 24, 1995

     Nothing on this Earth makes a sound quite like the theremin, a strange and wonderful musical instrument whose eccentric history has been turned into a whimsical, beguiling documentary called "Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey." No matter what your thresholds for pleasure and astonishment, this film, winner of the Filmmakers Trophy at Sundance, will cross them easily.
     Making eerie, undulating tones that are difficult to describe but unmistakable once heard, the theremin--unknown to the general public--is a legend in several fields. It has made the soundtracks of numerous movies unforgettable, played a key part in the history of both electronic music and rock and earned a reputation for its inventor, Leon Theremin, as, says celebrated musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky, "the prophet of the future of music."
     Invented by Theremin in his native Russia in 1920, the theremin is quite a bizarre piece of equipment. Its circuits are largely hidden by a wooden cabinet; all that's visible are a vertical antenna and a horizontal metal loop. What makes the theremin unusual is that it is played without being touched; merely moving your hands through the air over the cabinet varies loudness, pitch and timbre.
     After demonstrating his invention to an approving Lenin, Theremin embarked on a world tour that eventually landed him in New York, where packed concerts at Carnegie Hall and a rapturous press reception followed. "Soviet Edison Takes Music From the Air," read one headline, while other stories were impressed by the instrument's "ethereal and heavenly sounds."
     In New York, Theremin met the teen-age Clara Rockmore, who soon became a virtuoso on the instrument, capable of playing Bach for Leopold Stokowski, as well as the object of the inventor's attentions. One of the pleasures of Steven M. Martin's film is that we see Rockmore both then and now, in home movies as a glowing 18-year-old in an era when "we were always in evening clothes, it was very romantic," as well as in her current incarnation as the fierce priestess of the theremin cult, playing with delicacy, precision and beauty as her long red fingernails flash.
     We also see Theremin himself in those home movies, a Gyro Gearloose elegantly turned out in white tie and tails with the kind of piercing eyes that unnerved people. A singular genius who speculated about raising the dead with electricity, Theremin went his own way in his private life as well, scandalizing his society friends by marrying not Rockmore but Lavinia Williams, an African American ballerina.
     If detailing all this was all "Theremin" had on its mind, it would suffice, but suddenly the movie and the man's life take an unexpected and riveting turn. In 1938, like a character in a science-fiction film, Theremin disappeared from New York without a trace. There were rumors of Soviet secret police involvement but, to his friends in Manhattan, he simply vanished, appropriately enough, into thin air. A sizable chunk of "Theremin" is concerned with the man's fate, and the film's investigation into exactly what happened has the pleasant and surprising air of a juicy mystery.
     Theremin might be gone, but his influence if anything expanded, and another aspect of the movie details its extent. Robert Moog, for instance, the celebrated inventor of the Moog synthesizer, started out by building theremins at home when he was 14 and considers the instrument "the cornerstone of electronic music."
     Most amusing are the clips and interviews that illustrate how the theremin was employed by Hollywood. Whether it was the DTs in "The Lost Weekend," amnesia in Miklos Rosza's Oscar-winning score for "Spellbound" or, most memorably, space aliens in "The Day the Earth Stood Still," whenever weird noises were called for, the theremin was ready.
     And then came Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, whose brief bout of nonstop eccentric enthusiasm for the theremin captures as much of his essence as the entire "I Wasn't Made for These Times" documentary. Frightened by the instrument when he heard it as a child, Wilson reconsidered while putting a particularly tricky song together, deciding "why not put a theremin in there," and the defining sound of "Good Vibrations" resulted.
     Expertly orchestrating all these different strands is director Martin, also a theremin fan from childhood, who has a delicate appreciation of how simultaneously serious and silly this oddball story of a forgotten corner of musical history and popular culture is. By the time he brings everything together in a memorable climax played against the classic notes of "Good Vibrations," Martin's movie has made as vivid an impression as the music it celebrates with such charm.

Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, 1995. PG for a brief moment of strong language. Released by Orion Classics. Director Steven M. Martin. Producer Steven M. Martin. Cinematographers Frank De Marco, Robert Stone, Cris Lombardi, Ed Lachman. Editor David Greenwald. Music Hal Willner. Sound Andy Green, Kim Aubry. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

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