A book called "The Soviet Faust" (Lev Termen/Theremin - pioneer of electronic art) has recently been published in the capital of the Tartar Republic as a journal supplement. It is written by one of our long-standing contributors, who is now Director of the N.I.I. Institute of Experimental Aesthetics * - "Prometheus Centre" - (and whose pen, it will be recalled, provided us with an obituary for Leon Theremin in our Journal, Issue No 7' 1994). This book takes the form of some kind of philosophical reminiscence about this legendary man. The author and his subject knew each other for a long time, and were friends, despite an age gap of over half a century. In 1996 Theremin would have reached 100, and he only just failed to reach his centenary jubilee. The present article is a kind of 'auto-review', which sets out the content of the book in compressed form. In view of the fact that "The Soviet Faust" came out in small numbers and will therefore, alas, not be available to a large readership, the editors hope that this article will help to satisfy in some small measure the interest that our readers will have in the lot of this unique personality. And so...
The Faust theme is an eternal one. Every epoch produces its own collisions, in the course of which new 'Fausfs' search out contacts with new 'Mephistopheles'. Their outward appearance changes, as do the secret conditions of their pacts, but their essence remains the same. For the sake of his own happiness the hero is forced to surrender his soul to the Devil. Happiness smelling of sulphur. Is that possible?
Our subject, the 'Soviet Faust', worked on the Sparrow Hills, at the University of Moscow.
Mephistopheles resided with the KGB at the Lyubyanka.
Today these two buildings are just a couple of underground stations apart.
Yet between them there lies a gulf. We are reporting from out of that gulf.
The book 'The Soviet Faust' is devoted to Leon Sergeyevich Theremin (Lev Sergeyevich Termen) (1896-1993), pioneer of electronic art and inventor, who died only a short while ago, a man with a fantastic sort of fate which embraced both peace and war, art and 'secret', unproclaimed technology, who delighted both the packed halls of Europe and the USA and the quiet chambers of the Soviet Secret Services. This fusion of white and black, good and evil, accompanied him all his life.
Even before the revolutionary period he was a graduate of the St Petersburg Conservatoire and, at the same time, of the Higher Officers' Electrotechnical College, and afterwards he was both a concert artist and a member of staff of the State Physics-Technical Institute. Theremin's name was known all over the world as early as the 1920's. He constructed the first electronic instrument for use in the concert hall. Its sounds are produced by simply moving the hands through the air, 'out of nothing'. The instrument was called the Termenvox, or Theremin- ‘Theremin's voice. He first demonstrated it in 1922 at the Eighth All-Russian Electro-technical Congress at which the famous GOELRO Plan for the electrification of Russia was adopted. The device worked in two regimes, both as a musical instrument (about which everybody knows) and as a defence signal mechanism to protect especially important installations. (Here we have Theremin's first secret.) Both variants of the apparatus were demonstrated by the inventor to Lenin, and the Russian Head of State was delighted and himself had a go at playing the theremin. He gave the go-ahead for the development of both of Theremin's research directions; for it was all a visible affirmation of the leader's famous dictum "Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country," (music and defence included).
In 1922-6 Leon Theremin, already head of the laboratory for electronic soundings at the State Physics-Technical Institute, became a graduate of yet another institute. He wanted to have a valid Soviet qualification. For his diploma work he offered a working model of the first Soviet television (with an enormous screen measuring 1m.). Yet his name does not figure in the books about pioneers of television because after its demonstration to Stalin, the future red marshal Voroshilov, Budenny and Tukhashevsky the apparatus was sequestered, and ear-marked for use in frontier control. Thus Mephistopheles once more interfered in our Faust's fate, spreading a cloak of secrecy over his inventions. To keep the inventor quiet without stopping his working he was awarded a prize, and 'coupons for the special food shop'. Theremin was pleased because the prize money enabled him to work further on his electricalmusical devices.
Oh, Lev Sergeyevich, you should have remembered Goethe's 'Faust':
"Nay, nay the devil is an egoist,
The help he gives is not for heaven's sake."
The fame of Theremin's music sounded across the whole world. Hundreds of concerts were given in different towns across the USSR, and then in Germany, England and France. One of the Berlin papers wrote at that time: On a three month tour Leon Theremin has outstripped even Trotsky: he has brought about a world revolution in music. Then in the 1930's there came a prolonged business journey, lasting a whole decade, around the USA. It was strange kind of business trip. Of course it contained more concerts: appearances at the Carnegie Hall, at the Metropolitan Opera, work in a studio which he created in order to prepare hundreds of performances of 'radio music', and some three thousand perfected theremins were produced. On the most complicated version of this instrument, which received the name ‘terpsitone', the music was created not by the hands, but by movements of the whole body. The music no longer commanded the dance, but the other way on. The inventor's mind did not rest even here. He worked on, perfecting his experiments in combining radio music and light, even using sensors for taste and feeling - experiments which he had begun on during the Lenin period in Russia. And here it was still as in 'Faust':
"Your palate shall be satisfied,
Your sense of fragrance gratified,
And all your subtle feelings set aglow."
In addition, in the USA, in the ‘land of the yellow devil', where people 'die for the metal', and there is something there to protect- he continued working also on original defence signalling systems. In this connection Theremin set up the ‘Teletouch Corporation', which brought him in big profit. Well, not him, actually, but the USSR.
Famous musicians like George Gershwin, Maurce Ravel, Respighi, Walter Sigeti, Haifetz and Menuhin, writers like Hauptmann and Bernard Shaw, and film directors like Eisenstein and Charlie Chaplin attended these concerts and visited the studio (and Chaplin ordered a theremin for the cinema, by the way.) The well-known American conductor Leopold Stokowski collaborated closely with Theremin, having a special instrument made with a deep bass register. Albert Einstein visited the New York studio more than once. He was excited: "This sound, issuing freely out of space, is a new phenomenon." And most likely it was a splendid duet—the great physicist's violin and the great inventor's theremin sounding together. As Lev Sergeyevich recalled it, they played jazz pieces by Gershwin together. But Einstein was enthused by another idea: he looked for an analogy between music and spatial forms. As Theremin relates it, his studio was hung around with drawings of different geometrical figures which the young artist M.-E. Bute had helped him make. (Later on, in the 1950's, she was to become known for her son et huniere films, which underlines her own link with Theremin's work.) Other great American figures also visited Theremin's studio, such as the young Colonel D. Eisenhower, future president of the USA, and even also L. Groves, who later became director of the atomic "Manhattan Project". Theremin also met Dupont, Ford and Rockefeller, well-known financial magnates. Of course, Theremin became a millionaire.
Faust is triumphant. "In the beginning was the Deed!" How America loves people who do things! Theremin became one of the thirty most famous people in the world. He loved, and was loved, marrying a charming Negro dancer called Lavinia Williams. In a white dress with bow tie Theremin could grace the most fashionable salons in America.
But what of Mephistopheles? Has he forgotten Faust? Not at all. Faust was sent on his mission to America, in order, in parallel with his music, to carry out certain tasks for Soviet Intelligence. Not tasks directed against America itself, but, as Leon Theremin himself maintained, like Richard Sorge in Japan, ones with peaceful purposes: to try and find out on whose side America would be in the event of war. A few years ago, in his frank interview with "Moscow News", he said, "My talks with people concerned with the American arms trade were not about music. You may be sure that I was fairly well informed about the plans of the American political Olympus, and from what I had learned I understood this: it was not the USA, but the countries of the Fascist axis who would be our next military adversary. Jan Berzin, whom I knew as Peters, and was in charge of the intelligence agency RKKA, was of the same mind. In 1938 Stalin did away with him..." Soon Theremin was to be given the cruel treatment, too. It was only shortly before then that he had been allowed to return home. (According to another version of events, he had been forcibly taken away by the Chekists at night.) However that was, he was hardly able to recognize his own country. It had been plunged into the darkness of a post-revolutionary Middle Ages. The figures in Mephistopheles’ camp had changed. The Cheka had a new Head, Beria. Faust was now a nuisance, with his wish to be 'doing deeds'. Voroshilov turned away from his former trusty, 'failing to recognize' him. Our hero was arrested, for good measure. For a long time people in the West thought that Theremin had died, and for years his name in the encyclopedias was followed by the dates 1896-38. Realty proved more complex than all the literary ‘Fausts’.
1939. The Butyrskaya Prison in Moscow, where he 'drew up an account of his business trip to the USA'. Then it was Siberia, Kolyma, at the very end of the earth. As is known, Goethe's Faust finishes life working on ameliorative operations. Stokowski’s and Chaplin's friend worked in a stone quarry. He would have died there, too, if he had not been inventive, thinking up an easier way of transporting heavy loads using a barrow on a wooden monorail.
The war was approaching: there, up on high, they were thinking about the people they might be needing. Mephistopheles’ memory is good, especially if he is out to it. They transferred the inventor first to Omsk, and then to Moscow. He worked in the closed KB, behind wires, together with the designer Tupolev and future space-ship constructor Korolyov. He worked on radio beacons for aircraft and on apparatus for auto-piloting. The Chekists, we know, provided great cover for those who were working on new technology and the latest scientific research, and they lovingly fostered the staff of the VPK in various 'cliques'. Well, there are words for this in Goethe's "Faust', as well:
'Civilisation bids us
ever forward on:
is moved onward by the devil'
What did the inventor of the theremin not engage in during those years that he worked in secret defence! Where did his talents not lead him? The fańt that his talents were highly esteemed is born witness to by his being awarded in 1947 (whilst still working under confinement) the highest award of the time, the Stalin Prize, First Grade. Rumour has it that Beria, that Satan in human form, made use of Theremin's original radio invention 'Buran' (Snowstorm) not only for listening in to foreign embassies in Moscow, but also to Stalin himself! (In general Theremin's work in this closed shop very much recalls certain things in Solzhenitsyn's 'First Circle'; but Lev Sergeyevich said that he never came up against the writer at any time.) Theremin survived, evidently, only because his mind and talents were very much needed by the strong of that world. Added to his Stalin prize came freedom, and a flat in the prestigious Chekists' House on the Lenin Prospekt. But freedom oppresses by its uselessness. ‘In the beginning was the deed!' Doing deeds in freedom was a difficult, an onerous thing; so Theremin returned to the Chekists, hiring himself to now freely. Once again Faust was in Mephistopheles' service, and, what is more, right inside his den, in the secret Research Institute of the KGB.
1938-1964 were years crossed off as far as the music, and the New Art were concerned. Yet in his memory as a scientist, they were very interesting ones. He loved the difficulty of the tasks he was set to solve. 'I always sought to be useful to people,' were his words- which, actually, send a shudder through one. Finally he was released, and at the beginning of the 1960's he 'rose up' once again for people at large, and began working at the Moscow Conservatoire, and then, until the end of his life, in the Acoustics Department in Moscow University.
Now he devoted himself once more wholly to science, and to art. He constructed new, unusual instruments, which were to be driven either by biological currents, or by look - eye-movements. He constructed a lot of devices for measuring musical sound. He travelled the country frequently, giving lectures, speaking at conferences. From time to time Mephistopheles would remember about him, so he was asked to investigate unidentifiable flying objects, and telepathy. Who else would one entrust such never-yet- solved problems to? Theremin declined: but what if he had been able to solve the mystery of telepathy, what then? It is a weapon more terrible than the atomic bomb!
Every time, meeting Theremin, I found myself asking, 'Can this all be one man, one life, incorporating both technical matters and music, war and peace, the terpsitone, the Buran apparatus, an idyllic aristocratic childhood, the purgatory of revolution, applause all over the planet, and the 'crooked paths' of Beria's camps? His life led him to Lenin, Stalin, Tukhachevsky, and to Rockefeller, Gershwin and Korolyov, to Beria and to Einstein... Almost all the friends of his youth became academicians, and towards the end of his days he worked as a technician of the sixth rank at Moscow University, and lived for many years in a single room in a communal flat which was completely bunged up with radio equipment. Could he have become an Academician? Probably. However, such matters evidently did not much concern him.
A Faust of the twentieth century? Seeing his constant, radiant smile, and listening to his witty speech, one was tempted to think sometimes that perhaps this was Mephistopheles himself, only a kindly Mephistopheles. Or perhaps he was a synthesis: there does exist amongst the old German sources one version, which holds that they were of the same root and stem.
Well, since we have begun to speak of older times, there is reason to recall times even further back. Theremin's ancestors were, it appears, Albigensian heretics who fled religious persecution way back in the 13th century, and spread out across Europe. One branch of the genealogical tree grafted itself, surprisingly enough, on to Russia. Leon Sergeyevich showed me an album giving his pedigree, the scheme of his genealogical tree. On its first page it had the Theremin family coat-of-arms, with its cryptic motto: 'no more and no less'. This tree had strong branches. If there were to be a competition to find the one true representative of the Long- suffering twentieth century, then Leon Theremin could well make claim to that title. No more, and no less, than this.
As an inventor, he was lucky all his life. Yet he always dreamed of returning to his youthful researches into gravitational waves. Was this unreal? Perhaps it was. He amazed everyone by his un-subdued, joy-filled longevity. Smilingly he would advise you to read his name off backwards. (It reads as something like 'will not die"). He related in front of the microphone how he had examined blood corpuscles under the microscope.' They make dance formations there, and sing!'- and he considered that deciphering these dances was the way through to his new discovery. Several times Leon Sergeyevich told me he had penetrated the 'microstructure of time' and was on the threshold of discovering the secret of immortality. Was this an attempt at mystification? Maybe. But the main thing that he worried about all the time was that such secrets should not fall into Mephistopheles' hands. Faust stayed happy in his isolation here as he approached his own life centenary.
"Well, and what about your ‘resume’'?" the reader will be asking. Imagine there is a lesson going on in some secondary school, and some children who like to know things ask the question, "What was he, then, our 'Soviet Faust'? Was he a positive figure, or a negative one?" I would have to raise my hands in despair and say that I do not know, I don't dare, I don't wish, I am afraid to know that. It is only in fairy-tales where there is a moral at the end. I would have to say, pushing the question away, "One does not choose the time one lives in, but lives and dies in it." That is not from Goethe, but from poetry of our own day.
Here, actually, we can return to Goethe. He forgives Faust much, in the final count, as we know. In the final act of the play, when Faust dies with the words ‘Tarry, moment, for you are so fine' upon his lips, and, in accordance with his pact, his soul ought then to become the possession of the Evil Spirit, suddenly, on Goethe's instruction, some angels fly up and whisk the 'eternal' piece of his soul away from under Mephistopheles1 nose. Then, 'wafting in the upper atmosphere', they sing obliviously:
"Saved is our spirit-peer, in peace,
Preserved from evil scheming.
For he whose strivings never cease
Is ours for his redeeming."
Perhaps, like Goethe, we ought to finish our account here. Yet one is left with some inexplicable feeling of guilt towards the 'Soviet Faust' about the astoundingly tragic life he led for almost a century, the life of that 'Albigensian moth', flying ever onward amongst the singeing lights of our frenetic but beautiful world, in search of the interesting Deed.
Therefore, instead of having recourse to the trivial biblical wisdom of 'Do not judge, lest you be yourselves judged' my book leaves these ticklish questions unanswered; or it adds to them, even. What for us is most important of all is Theremin's voice', his theremin machines which will, I believe, continue to sound out in all purity and clarity in man's memory, as a primary source, the origin of a new electronic art.
Finally here I would like to point to a small section of the last chapter of my book 'The Soviet Faust' where it relates how in his last years, and with sudden amazement, Theremin was 'rediscovered' in the West, where it had been assumed he could no longer be alive and well, so many years after 1938.
They did not know what had become of Theremin, either, at The Hague, at the Electronic Music centre of the Dutch Music Conservatoire. When I was there in 1991 they asked me if on my next visit I would bring along some photographs of Theremin for the Museum of Electronic music. I opened my eyes naively wide and asked, 'Maybe it would be better if Theremin came here himself?' There ensued a dumb scene, like in Gogol's 'Government Inspector', and I asked them to issue him an invitation. So we both arrived in Holland in January 1993. That was our last meeting together.
The Royal Academy received him royally, with a symposium on Schonberg- Kandinsky, with a son et lumiere performance of Schohberg's "The Happy Hand". Then came the opening of the Museum of Electronic Music, where a serial issue theremin from times long ago had just been brought in from the USA. It was, unfortunately, not in working order. Natasha (Leon Sergeevich's daughter) was much upset over this. "They'd have done better to take ours, because ours doesn't work, either." The instrument had to be repaired for Theremin's appearance at the coming Academy of Light. I tried to help them and to explain in English how the 'cathode relay' of Edison's time works. I do not know whether my knowledge of radio technology, which was on the same primitive and hideous level as my English, helped them, but they were first-class technicians, and they repaired it. Then, at the opening of the Academy of Light, after my concluding words, "Not a word about those 'little folk' who dance and sing!" Leon Sergeyevich talked in magnificent English, which he had not forgotten, but still remembered, about his experiments in music and his son et lumiere. Then Natasha began playing the theremin. Suddenly Leon Sergeyevich got up, went round behind the scenes, and to a roar of delight in the hall, and camera flashes, finished playing the piece himself. After this I plucked up courage to speak in English for the first time in my life, although, of course, my efforts at pronunciation were not all that successful. After that came a formal reception in the Academy. Two of our people were present- Leon Sergeyevich Theremin, and after him, and probably for companionship, me. It was a good gathering, I can say.
Leon Sergeyevich never grew despondent, neither here, nor in rainy Le Hague. He arrived tired and downcast, but the work atmosphere of the Festival literally electrified him up, and restored him. I looked, and there he was, sitting with a Dutch lady painter, and whispering something conspiratorially in her ear. She broke into laughter, though in an embarrassed kind of way. I went up to help, and she told me, 'You'll never believe this, but he has proposed to me and suggests rushing off to Russia to demonstrate something about the 'microscopia of time'. How old is he, actually? Perhaps he really does know something of the mystery-way of the Macropulos?
Ňhen it suddenly dawned on me that he really did know the way! There he was, sitting in front of us, almost one hundred years old, a little aged, maybe, but yet a young man, with a childlike smile and bright eyes. He bad been working all his life on his own Beloved Thing, and that, doing the thing that you love, is the Road to the Macropulos!
Once more, even, here at the finale, I was forced to repeat to myself over again, 'Oh, Leon Sergeyevich, with you it is never boring!' On the very first day- either he had misplaced it, or else it had been made off with, Leon Sergeyevich's hat had gone missing, (no more, and no less). The Dutch people were, understandably, very upset about it. I tried to console them, saying that most likely someone had taken it along to put in a museum as a souvenir. Whilst they were searching for another hat for him I had to lend him mine, which was a funny one at the best of times; but when it got on to Theremin's head even the punks with cockerel hairstyles outside in the street had their breath taken away! And that is how he remains now for ever in my memory- us standing together in the courtyard in front of the United Hague Museums, with the Arts section on the left of us and the Local History section behind us, with, visible through the window, an enormous dinosaur skeleton; against this background, amidst Dutch drizzle, -a smiling Theremin in my own silly wet hat.
They spent a long time searching for a new hat, an extra high-class one, most likely, and brought it for him just before our embarkation on the Amsterdam to Moscow plane. We were already late and I seated the Soviet Faust in the carriage to take us to the plane, and with a cry of 'Watch out!' we went hurtling across the foreign airport, through lights that were not like those of our own land, towards the ladder to the plane, and towards home...
It touched me to see how, arriving in our own airport, Leon Sergeyevich- or maybe it only seemed so to me? - suddenly seemed, as if from old habit, to turn around on the spot in front of the hatch of the passport officer in his green cap with its raspberry-coloured KGB brim: first face-on, then in profile...Heavens, people, why ever did you have to do that to him?!