Bulat M. Galeyev
SOVIET FAUST: LEV TERMEN, PIONEER OF ELECTRONIC ART
Supplement to "Kazan" magazine, Kazan, Russia, 1995. - 96 pp.
ISSN 6869 8961
Reviewed by Yu. V. Linnik, Russia.
"Termen ne mret" - so could be entitled my review of this book (the Russian phrase "ne mret" means "does not die"). This palindrome reflects the truth: it is a mirror inversion that encloses its word sounds in a ring in which currents of immortality circulate. My first thought was to write: "Leon Theremin (Lev Sergeyevich Termen) missed his centennial by 3 years". But I immediately rejected the idea, believing that Theremin has lived to see and even to outlive his one-hundredth anniversary. Theremin is alive, and this is where he gets the upper hand over his predecessor Faust. Bulat Galeyev's "Soviet Faust" is a brilliant biography of this pioneer of electronic art.
When Lenin died, Theremin had a proposal for the Soviet government: he suggested that if they would freeze Lenin's body, he would find a way to revive it. Was this idea utopic? One should note its pragmatic, typically Faustian form: immortality is purely a matter of engineering, not a transcendental problem. Nikolai Fedorov, the founder of Russian cosmism , had a similar way of thinking. From the first time I saw and heard Theremin (at the Light and Music conference held in Kazan in 1975), I perceived him as a champion of such ideas. He belonged to a line of thinkers including Fedorov, Tziolkovsky and Rerikh. Galeyev's book, which contains a great deal of previously unpublished information on Theremin, corroborates my theory. It appears that Theremin conducted a thorough investigation of immortality, developing an idea of a "microscopy of time" and proposing it as a means of directing time in order to decrease entropy. The concrete details of the techniques he proposed are not my concern here; instead, I wish to attract the reader's attention to the very aim of overcoming death in the material world, not in the transcendental one.
An understanding of this point is essential to any understanding of Russian cosmic utopia as a whole. Fedorov's outlook is none other than that of a philosophy of transformation  carried out within the material world. It must be emphasized that the means for achieving such a transformation are purely material and technological. As a matter of fact, Theremin was engaged in modeling transformation. As used by the cosmists, the term "transformation" does not mean dematerialization (spiritualists misunderstand it). Instead, it refers to making matter itself brighter and more spiritual, freeing it from entropy. It is apparent that such endeavors have a magical character, and the legendary theremin is none other than a magical device - certainly on the level of aesthetic perception, if not on a technical level. Theremin performers free themselves from the burden of entropic matter, manipulating "pure ether" (i.e. electromagnetic waves) lightly, without undue constraints or expenditures of physical energy. The theremin gives us an idea of the music of an already transformed world.
Since ancient times, distant vision has been considered the prerogative of magicians. Is it possible to overcome the irrevocability of distance? As a young specialist in radio engineering, Theremin produced an answer: he created a prototypical large-screened television set in 1923. This was his way of overcoming the visual gaps imposed by distance - and it did produce magical effects. There were also other ruptures that were to be overcome by transformation, such as the discrete nature of the senses. Hearing, sight, touch, taste and smell sometimes function incoherently. Was it not appropriate that Theremin sought to synthesize all sensory channels? It is significant, too, that his approach to this synthesis was an aesthetic one. Transformation meant complete harmony and beauty, as well as maximum creative liberty for the artist. As investigated experimentally by Theremin, transformation promised that all physical restrictions would be removed and that the artist would be able to go beyond the limits of space and time. Striving to achieve creative transformation of matter would result in a union between art and magic. Theremin amplified this union by means of technology. Without a doubt, this picture of transformed matter has many features in common with the so-called "virtual reality" of current computer simulations. Galeyev's book leads one to unquestionably conclude that Theremin was the Columbus of virtual reality, beginning his experimentation in the field in the 1920s and 1930s. Many of his ideas have only recently come to be understood. An example is his "tactile glove", which allowed for the inclusion of tactile sensations into the ensemble of the effects Theremin used in his performances in order to achieve a "total synthesis of the senses". Computer-aided gloves are more elegant, but Theremin was the pioneer.
We have struck a high note with our statement that Theremin was a prophet of transformation. But perhaps it is dissonant with Theremin-Faust's close relations with the devil. Here we face paradoxes and antinomies of an intensity unprecedented in the history of art.
Lenin was amazed by the theremin. He understood quickly that the principles used to create this wonderful device could be applied to other, purely practical fields. We find evidence of this in a letter he addressed to Trotsky dated 4 April 1922:
"Discuss the possibility of reducing the
Kremlin cadet guard squads by using
an electrical alarm system (an engineer
Theremin, has demonstrated his experiments
in the Kremlin: the peculiarity of the
system is that an alarm signal is produced
when anyone so much as approaches the alarm
Theremin began working to ensure the security of the state upon the recommendation of Lenin himself. We could also say that he began working for state security, which has a slightly different meaning. In any case, Theremin was at home in Lubianka , which did nothing to save him from imprisonment in the gulag. I remember very well the shock I experienced when a stunning fact came to light a few years ago due to perestroika: Theremin's epic long-term stay in America marked by friendships with Einstein and Chaplin was an intelligence mission.
Theremin, descendant of the Albigo, was a man of strong moral principles and a socialist in essence, honoring Lenin and his cause throughout his life. He obtained his Communist Party card (pictured on page 80 of Galeyev's book) in 1991, at the age of 95. There are no doubts that his deed was sincere.
From my student days, I remember hearing talk about a unique bugging device possessed by the KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti) that was said to scan information by detecting window-pane vibrations. The question of whether it was only a legend invariably arose. The atmosphere of total suspiciousness, so characteristic of our country, predisposed us to accept legends as truths: our souls trembled more perceptibly than the window panes that were said to be treacherously transmitting our seditious conversations into ambient space. This legend, however, turned out to be true. Code-named "Buran" (Snowstorm), Theremin's device won him an award for his ingenuity. Approved by Stalin, it was used against him by former KGB chief Beria, who recorded Stalin's conversations. After years of careful preservation of these recordings, Theremin finally threw them out when they began to fall apart with decay. Was his decision too hasty? I believe that there may have been a chance to restore these tapes.
From the theremin's detection and amplification of the lofty harmony of spheres came the revelation of the instrument's essential meaning in the form of a surveillance device. Such was the amplitude of Theremin's endeavors, which appear to be riddled with contradictions. Theremin himself was of a different opinion, being a whole-hearted servant of Fedorov's "Common Cause", the aim of which was to unify humanity. (Fedorov himself understood it as involving the "raising from the dead" of all ancestors, which would result in the inevitable resettlement of humans on other planets due to overpopulation on Earth.) According to the structure of this Common Cause -- which was the same for Communists, Albigo and Fedorov followers alike -- beauty and goodness were blended inseparably. One might wish to argue with such a point of view. The example of Theremin shows us, however, that it can give rise to eminent persons.
Published in "Leonardo Music Journal", v.6, 1996, pp.70-71