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Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2001

Better listening through circuitry


Rating: * * * 1/2 Director: Steven M. Martin Running time: 83 minutes Language: English Now showing

Just about everyone's listening to some sort of electronic music these days, but most people would be hard-pressed to name any of the medium's pioneers. Perhaps most would recognize Kraftwerk as having popularized a purely electronic sound; probably fewer could name-check Robert Moog, the man who spearheaded the mass-production of affordable synthesizers. But only the real otaku could name the man who inspired Moog, a Soviet emigre named Leon Theremin (born Lev Termen), a mad-scientist-cum-musician who invented the first purely electronic instrument, the Theremin.

Leon Theremin in "Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey"

But even if you don't recognize the name, you surely know the sound -- that eerie, vibrating ooo-weee-ooo that graced dozens of cheesy '50s sci-fi movies, a sound that is at once operatic and artificial. You've heard it in The Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" and in the soundtrack to Tim Burton's "Mars Attacks!" where it was actually played by Theremin's protege, Clara Rockmore.

What you definitely don't know is the fascinating story surrounding this instrument and its creator, and that's what director Steven M. Martin delivers with his documentary "Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey," a 1993 film that's receiving a criminally belated release in Japan. Martin combines period footage and recent interviews to trace the forgotten history of Theremin and his seminal instrument, and, as it turns out, this was one of those stories just begging to be told.

As Moog points out, when Theremin debuted his instrument in the 1920s, "it was the beginning of the electronic music medium." Martin's film documents the astonishment that greeted the Theremin; "Creating Music Out of the Air With a Wave of the Hand" was a typical headline of the time. In an era when even radio was a still-developing technology, the Theremin seemed nothing short of magical. And yet it was a simple contraption, no more than a few valves and coils and a magnetic field.

But it was an instrument, don't doubt that. Most people today tend to think of it as a glorified special-effect, but period footage from the '20s and '30s shows Theremin -- and his star student, the wide-eyed Rockmore -- performing a classical repertoire accompanied by concert pianists and orchestras at venues as prestigious as Carnegie Hall. They execute the material with perfect pitch and tone control, the sound resembling a violin crossed with an otherworldly alto.

Theremin was a man obsessed, pouring his imagination into using technology to create new forms of artistic expression. Aside from the standard Theremin, he created the Rhythmicon, which produced beats from overtones, and the Theremin X, which was an enlarged board-like Theremin upon which dancers shaped sounds with their bodily movements.

Theremin ended up marrying Lavinia Williams, a dancer with the first black ballet troupe in America. Socially, in those segregated times, this was as before its time as any of Theremin's technological advances. The filmmakers gloss over Theremin's marriage, though, suggesting instead that his real love was Rockmore, which -- while not exactly proven -- shines through in every picture of the two of them together. What's more, Rockmore alone devoted her life to championing Theremin's instruments.

So what happened? Why was it that electronic music stagnated for three decades after Theremin's innovations, not prospering until the arrival of synthesizers in the '60s? One reason is the advent of LSD and the consciousness expansion of the psychedelic era, which opened people's ears to these new musical possibilities. Another is that, despite its potential, playing a Theremin well clearly involved more than "a wave of the hand"; to achieve precision of pitch and tone demands hand-ear coordination of the highest level.

But undoubtedly the main reason is that Theremin himself, the most talented and inspired promoter of this music, disappeared in the late '30s in mysterious circumstances, kidnapped in broad daylight from his Manhattan apartment. The long arm of the KGB was suspected, and Theremin was presumed dead or worse. The filmmakers find him, alive and fairly well in his 90s, and fill in the blanks of history, even arranging a reunion with Rockmore, which -- reflecting the classy values of an earlier age -- she quickly decides to continue privately off-camera. (The one gripe here is that it would have been nice if they had interviewed Theremin using a Russian interpreter; his English is rudimentary, suffering from decades of disuse.)

Martin never labors the point, but his film astutely documents the various ways in which political systems pervert the course of art. The communist repression is more odious and overt, with the KGB imprisoning Theremin for several years and then forcing him to work on electronic bugging technology. The capitalist system works in subtler ways: In America, the fascinating potential of the Theremin was ignored since composers tended to avoid anything new, equating what worked before as what the market "wants."

The KGB once taunted Theremin -- before smashing all his instruments -- saying, "the people do not need electronic music. Electricity is for killing traitors in the electric chair." Theremin gets the last laugh, though, as youths the world over tear it up raving to techno music, while most of the civilized world -- President Bush excepted -- turns its back on the electric chair. Thanks, Leon -- the sine wave is mightier than the sword.

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