SMASHERS OF THE PAST: LÉON THEREMIN



“Electricity is not good for music. Electricity is to be used for electrocution”.

The grossly prescriptive sentences above were delivered to Lev Sergeyevich Termen - better known to ugly Americans as Léon Theremin - upon his dismissal from the Moscow Conservatory of Music where he had worked as a professor of acoustics. It seems the quasi-irony of employing a person best known for making one of the world’s first electronic instruments (which one? Here’s a hint: look at his last name) to teach acoustics was not lost on the forward thinking academics of the Brezhnev-era USSR. This was not the first time some knuckle-head in power during Soviet-era Russia dismissed Léon Theremin. Fortunately for us all, Theremin was about the most ride-or-die musician/inventor who has ever inhabited this mortal coil, and his legacy remains vibrant while that of the many apparatchiks who ruined the lives of countless of their countrymen and women, including his, recedes shamefully into antiquity.


Before we talk about why Theremin fits the platonic ideal of a Smasher, let’s set this thing off with a pop quiz. Which of the following are true about Léon Theremin?


He jammed with Albert Einstein;

He invented the predecessor to the modern garage door opener;

He was a spy;

He jammed with Vladimir Lenin;

He invented the first “bug”; aka eavesdropping device;

He made an instrument that translated a dancer’s motion into music;

He spent eight months in a Siberian work camp;

He was awarded the 1947 Stalin Prize;

He married an African American ballerina while living in New York in the 1930s, a time where such a thing was absolutely taboo;

He lived longer than the Soviet Union existed;


Ok, ready for the answer? The answer is fucking ALL OF THOSE.

Whereas I’ll use burning my mouth on a latte as a reason not to run errands, this dude figured out how to improve the efficiency of prison food delivery systems in order to get himself out of a gulag. If a Smasher is a person that creates and inspires without approval or permission, who innovates and adapts in order to thrive against the odds, who pushes back against the artificial boundaries constructed by culture and enforced by the well-situated, Léon Theremin would be on the Mount Rushmore of Party Smashers (Mt. Smashmore?). As fellow music legend, inventor of the synthesizer, and Smasher in his own right, Robert Moog put it, “At various times in his life, Theremin was a technological sensation, a political prisoner, a major contributor to the war effort of the Soviet Union (against Nazi Germany), a beloved teacher, a forgotten hero, and an object of adulation by thousands technologists.”


The interwebz sports a vast body of Theremin knowledge, so I won’t get into any sort of biographical exercise here. I’m also not trying to write Léon’s hagiography. After all, as jaw-droppingly inspiring as he often was, he did voluntarily work with the KGB for years after his imprisonment, developing technology for the specific purpose of spying on people. So, you know, his track record is not exactly spotless. The purpose of this series is to shine a spotlight on people that who took from their surroundings and made something more. More of themselves, more of their communities, more of the world. Léon Theremin saw electricity as much more than exchange of charge. Where one bureaucrat saw electricity's highest use as a blunt instrument of violence, Theremin used electricity to make an instrument of nuanced melodic beauty. Where his fellow prisoners found despair in the snows of Siberia, Theremin saw an opportunity. Where Americans saw racial division, Theremin found love.


We here at Party Smasher look for inspiration not just in the art - defined here as inclusively as possible - people make, but also in how they make it considering their context. We are suckers for the stories of people who did it themselves and decided it themselves. To be clear, when promoting these various plays on “DIY”, we are not worshipers of the altar of the rugged individualism that is the legitimizing myth of the right-wing. Far from it. We are celebrating people who shake up the social order and defy institutional hegemony to reify their visions and advance the cause of artists all over the world. Léon Theremin did all of that and more. We encourage you to spend some time with his story and see if you can learn a thing or two. Theremin lived a life of creativity, ingenuity, and perseverance. Even in the most dire circumstances, he found a way to keep creating. I’ll keep that in mind next time I order coffee.


© Party Smasher Inc. 2019

PARTY SMASHER INC.

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