consulate demanded Theremin divorce Katia. He
proposed to his young and beautiful protégé, Clara
Rockmore; she turned him down and Theremin instead
married Lavinia Williams, a young and beautiful dancer in
his employ. In 1938, he suddenly disappeared -- his wife
said he had been kidnapped by Russian agents.
Clara Rockmore rose to prominence as the world’s
pre-eminent thereminist; in the ‘40s, a podiatrist
thereminist named Hoffman made a living cutting records
and performing the soundtracks for such classic films as
“The Day the Earth Stood Still;” in the ‘50s, a trombonist
named Tanner put Hoffman out of work with his electro-theremin: a different device that sounded similar but was
much easier to play.
In 1966, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys hired Tanner
to perform on “Good Vibrations,” unaware that the
instrument used was not actually a theremin. Tanner’s
device was destroyed by an earthquake; Theremin’s
second wife, Lavinia died in Haiti of food poisoning.
Meanwhile, sometime in the 1950s, Rockmore and
her husband visited Moscow, and made contact with
Theremin by a bizarre chance encounter. After 25 years
of silence and mystery, she received a message to meet
Léon on a subway platform, where they spoke for a few
minutes. It turns out Theremin’s disappearance may have
had more to do with the IRS than the KGB.
What is known for sure is that when Theremin
returned to Russia, he was arrested and dispatched to a
series of labor camps. He wound up in a secret Soviet
laboratory where he developed spy gear for the KGB. He
was sort of released in 1947, but “volunteered” to keep
working with the KGB until 1966.
Nothing much happened with Theremin or theremins
during the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1991, Léon -- then 95 years old -- returned to New
York where he gave concerts, received awards, was
chauffeured around in a limousine, and was reunited with
Clara Rockmore. It’s not clear that he remembered her.
He died in Moscow in 1993, aged 97.
You couldn't make this stuff up. As many long-time
readers of this magazine know, I have built many different
musical instruments in the past and have written about
some of them here in the pages of Nuts & Volts.
It should come as no surprise that I have built a fully
analog theremin for my own uses; it’s shown in
Photo 1. I used this very theremin in recording a
cover of the Tom Petty song, “Running Down a
Dream” (which is available at
2013/11-RunningDownADream.wav if you care
to listen to it).
How Theremins Work
A traditional theremin features a pair of
antennas that act as the capacitors in a resonant
circuit. As mentioned earlier, as the player moves
his/her hands, capacitance changes affect the
pitch of an oscillator and its volume. Analog
theremins like the one I built are subject to drift
Photo 1. The analog theremin I built.
March 2018 41
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downloads at www.nutsvolts.com/magazine/issue/2018/03.
Photo 2. My fully assembled Zeppelin Design Labs
Altura theremin MIDI controller in a black acrylic case.