The odd-looking piece of dining room furniture, a four-foot square box, wired to a TV-sized walnut cabinet on four stilts, were more curiosity than musical instrument. And furniture, for the main, was their role, given the absence of almost any person – local or traveler – in our part of the world who could make sense, and, thus, music from their electric entrails.
Even its name was strange: Theremin.
We did know a bit of its whereabouts. The Theremin came to Obion County, Tennessee, from, what for us, was another world: New York City. It came in two parts, one a cabinet that held a speaker. The other stood upright, chest-high, with metal, antennae protruding from its top and side. That was the business part of this electric marvel, the part that translated arm movements into sound. Or so it did for those able to move their arms with enough skill to turn radio waves into recognizable music.
This was not easy.
A creature of the new age of electricity, the Theremin was as much of a wonder in 1928, when it was made in New York City by RCA, as was television in 1948, even if not so long enduring. A mix of fortune and miss-fortune brought it to that corner of our dining room in the old Waddell Place, our new home, a three-story Victorian structure, built soon after the Civil War and suitable for gentry.
The place had gone downhill from its unusual birth in the post Civil War South. Most of the land lay impoverished, structures neglected. Early settlers, eccentric – as followers of the Scandinavian mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg they believed in reincarnation – the Waddells owned great swaths of land in Obion and adjacent Lake County and somehow managed to hold on to it through war and Reconstruction.
Fiercely ugly, this old house, and gloomy. It smelled of old, perhaps rotting, wood. Its meagre grace came from 15-foot ceilings that spared us the worst of discomfort from the humid, sweltering summers on the alluvial plain of West Tennessee. Air conditioning had yet to be invented. Its size allowed my widowed mother to fix two rented apartments in its upstairs to go with our own living space. We needed the money. Of course, all the tenants tried their arms at the Theremin downstairs in our dining room. All failed.
A literate in-law named the place Bankrupt Manor, an abrupt comedown from the modern country house we lost in 1935 to failing banks and falling hog and corn prices. The New Deal would soon come to the relief of such economic travail, but not in time to save the farm.
We shared this dreadful fall from affluence with quite a lot of the West Tennessee, West Kentucky, gentry. The fallen grasp for scraps of their lost identity and drink a lot of whiskey. So it was with bankrupt Russian nobles after the revolution, and, not long thereafter, with bankrupt Southern gentry.
Accordingly, the family’s attachment to that odd-looking piece of furniture, the Theremin, a musical instrument not heard from much before and even less since, but, nevertheless, a dining room showpiece – a token of better times. All we knew of it was this: my rich Uncle Arthur and his wife Wilma (nee Beck) purchased the apparatus in Berlin while on a grand tour of the continent. This was 1928, just before the Great Depression. They brought it back intact to Obion County.
Uncle Arthur played the violin and, I assumed without firsthand knowledge, that he could also play the Theremin. From what I subsequently heard, Aunt Wilma was the brains behind their good business fortune. She came from a family of business people, merchants, not farmers, who had migrated from Germany in the 1840s, via New Orleans up the Mississippi River to adjacent places in West Tennessee. All were professed Methodists, a religion probably adopted with their coming to a new land.
Uncle Arthur died in the early 1930s. Aunt Wilma moved off to property they had purchased in Florida, leaving behind the Theremin to her late husband’s name-sake, my brother Arthur. Considering the musical fate of the instrument, this turned out to be more fortuitous than gracious.
Word got around our county about the odd electric music machine, so strange cars bearing piano players and fiddlers and, maybe, just plain curious would come up the long gravel driveway, between rows of oak and walnut, hardwood most valued by sawmills, to Bankrupt Manor to try their hands at the exotic instrument. None succeeded. But they were welcomed. We were hospitable people, albeit poor, and probably more than a little curious about the extent to which the machine could be mastered.
Lord knows I tried, flailing with the left hand to control the volume, shifting the right hand back and forth to turn radio waves into musical notes, trying to match sound to the tune going through my mind. I tried hardest on “Welcome Sweet Springtime,” a Franz Lehar classic, at least in Obion County. Nothing happened, save incoherent squeaks and squawks; unpleasant noise.
It was my brother Arthur, intense, disciplined, who made the damned thing work. I could never tell anyone why or how. He played the violin too. He also played football, a solid lineman on an outstanding high school team. Next to God, a Protestant naturally, stood football in those parts at that time – and perhaps even to this day.
Of medium size, I mean not big enough for powerhouses Vanderbilt or Tennessee, Arthur moved on to college at Middle Tennessee State in Murfreesboro on a full-ride, joint football and music, scholarship, reward for his rare, if not extraordinary, talents; the mix of art with brutality in one person. He took the Theremin with him. Arthur could block and tackle and turn the Theremin’s radio waves into music. He played Saturdays on the football field, Sundays in the college concert hall. Hollywood caught the essence of these skills in a romantic film where John Garfield starred as a violinist/prize-fighter, and performed better than a contender in both symphony hall and fight ring; a sentimental fantasy.
Arthur Scates was the real thing. So was that creepy, weird. music that played as background to set the mood for several movies – Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck and Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, the drunk played by Ray Milland – are conspicuous. It could also be heard on mystery radio melodramas of the 1930s and early 1940s – popular stuff before television. A few of us could identify the sound of Theremin. None had the slightest guess about its creator or the identity of its players. They surely didn’t come from West Tennessee or Kentucky.
Eventually, long after I left Tennessee for the Pacific Northwest and life as a seaman and journalist, curiosity got the best of me. I found, to my surprise, a rather strange story: a musical inventor moonlighting as a Soviet spy.
His tale is told in Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage by Albert Glinsky.
“Electricity will take the place of God,” said Vladimir Lenin, architect and executioner of the Bolshevik revolution, in 1918. This was about the time Lev Sergeyevich Termin (Leon Theremin), a descendant of 18th Century French heretics who found refuge in Czarist Russia, was coming out of St. Petersburg University and into the Communist Party. A physics student, he noted how hand movements could control the pitch of radio waves – a hand close to the antenna would cause a high pitch. Withdrawing the hand would lower the pitch. Shaking the hand produced a vibrato.
So knowing, Theremin gave Soviet culture a shot in the arm, a new musical instrument, a “people’s instrument,” proclaimed the people’s propagandists, “easy to produce, easy to play.” Little did they know – not for the first time did Soviet propaganda outstrip reality. They had to be desperate for something to boast about.
Blessed by the ruling commissars, Theremin went west to Paris and New York, cloak and dagger, with his new instrument, as the Daily Worker put it, to show the world “the new Soviet culture.” He attracted a lot of hullabalo: “A new sensation of the machine age! The greatest musical wonder of our time,” said the New York Times. Nevermind the really weird sound. There was at least one despairing note. The non-Communist playwright George Bernard Shaw said he had heard better music coming from “a comb and tissue paper.”
So much for his daytime job. Theremin had a temporary visa in New York, diplomatic cover for his assignment to discover and report developments in the American aircraft industry. At the time we were designing the Flying Fortress at Boeing, and the Thunderbolt fighter-bomber on Long Island. No telling how much, if any, of Theremin’s reports aided Soviet preparation for World War II. We do know his shadow job did little to daunt his hustle of the “musical wonder.”
“If a youth has the spirit of music in him he can play the instrument in two weeks – it would take a violinist two years of training,” claimed Theremin. (“Oh yeah?” I thought to myself when I read of that boast.) Say this for Theremin. His Communist esprit didn’t override his lust for a buck. In the best capitalist tradition, he sold patent rights for the instrument to RCA for $100,000 and proceeded to barnstorm the nation – Houston, New Orleans, Dallas, San Francisco – to show off his machine. A Theremin in every household for $230 per copy was RCA’s aim.
It didn’t happen. RCA sold 306 of the machines in 1930, 1 in 1931. Of course the nation went bust in 1929, and, given its price-tag, that alone might have doomed Commie dreams of the people’s music maker.
For reasons inexplicable – idealism? ignorance? – Theremin went back to the Soviet Union in 1938, the peak of Josef Stalin’s paranoia and the accompanying slaughter of alleged enemies. Suspect for his time in the U.S., Theremin went from homecoming to a Siberian labor camp where he, unlike many thousands of other prisoners, managed to survive.
“Rehabilitated,” as they say, by Chairman Nikita Khrushchev in the late 1950s, Theremin came back on a visit to the U.S. where he was but dimly remembered, if at all. The Theremin never came closer than a piccolo to being a household entertainment.
Before he went to war as an Army aviator, my brother Arthur shipped the Theremin back to Bankrupt Manor. In 1941, the idealist felt strongly about the need to combat a menace from Nazi Germany. He came home once or twice on leave, passing from one Army Air Force base to another. I don’t think he touched the Theremin standing silent in one corner of the dining room. He met a few old sweethearts; love, yes, but no time for music. The war was on. We were still on the defensive.
Arthur’s last letter came from an air base in Libya from where he flew his B-24 to bomb the Nazi-controlled oil fields in Ploesti, Rumania. The raid, I learned years later, was a disaster. We lost scores of B-24s and their airmen, one of these my brother. Oil production resumed within weeks. The war went on.
Arthur was 22 years old. Save for myself, he, like the odd electric music he mastered, is pretty much forgotten. I can never forgive his loss or the cost in music – hell, art – we pay for warfare. His Theremin sort of vanished into the living room of some kin – I really don’t know which. But it’s surely a household ornament. Outside those anonymous few in Hollywood, nobody else could play the damned thing.
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