Thursday, August 12, 2010

Connecting espionage, electricity, Macy's store windows, and the Beach Boys

"Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage" by Albert Glinsky

This book is 342 pages, in hardcover.  If you think you're going to go from Russia in 1896 to the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" without a lot of stuff in between, you're gonna be disappointed. 

I'll be honest: I tried reading every page of this book, but about a third of the way through, I gave up.  Firstly, Leon Theremin was heavily involved in industrial spying for the Soviet government during his years in America, and the details of that keep popping up between exhaustive discussions of Theremin's musical work.  I didn't need an exact list of music played at every concert appearance by Theremin.  Knowing how insanely complicated the man's story is without such minutiae, I would have expected Glinsky to make more of an effort to present it in a more understandable way.  But maybe the editor insisted on adding stuff.

I'll go back to the book in the near future, though.  I found out all kinds of really cool trivia: a few people were actively working on the concept of television in the 1880s.  By 1924, Theremin's electric burglar alarms were protecting the Soviet State Bank and some American businesses.  He had a metal detector in Alcatraz. 

By 1927, he mused over how to combine music, touch, movement, and fragrance, anticipating virtual reality by a few generations.  He'd already successfully combined his electromagnetic musical instrument (known as the theremin) with a color-wheel that projected changing hues which corresponded to pitch changes. He wowed audiences with a music and light show many decades before disco and lasers.

He used an early sort of hologram in Macy's windows, showing a mirror that people always stopped to look into. This interrupted a relay, which made an ad appear in the center while the mirror's border remained.  In the '30s, this was nothing short of an actual miracle.

I didn't get to how the theremin led to the development of the Moog synthesizer, which led to electronic music as we know it.  There were glimpses of how and why that happened.  Leon Theremin's life seems to have been directed, in matters small and large, by the hand either of God or the devil: maybe both.  At one point, he married a (mostly) African-American woman 20 years his junior.  He flaunted their relationship despite how it hurt his friendships.  In 1938, this was one of the biggest scandals around.

Theremin's life is worth reading about for the sheer adventure of it, but I also had to think about where American society has been over the decades.  The USSR became Russia again but a lot of other things haven't changed.  This well-dressed, unassuming Bolshevik, entranced by the possibilities of electricity, wound up changing our lives in real ways.  I absolutely think his life would make a perfect PBS miniseries.  If I had the writing chops, and the proper research contacts, I'd make one hell of a trilogy of it.  I leave that to those better connected.

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