Sunday, July 03, 2016

Hands off

Radio 4's Good Vibrations: The Story Of The Theremin, presented by Bill Bailey, definitely did what it promised to do on the tin: relate the history of the curious musical instrument that you don't even need to touch to play while inevitably referencing its most famous use - by the Beach Boys on 'Good Vibrations'. But in truth that title and the description on the iPlayer Radio site rather undersold the half-hour documentary.

As a fan of the theremin - not only for its appearance on 'Good Vibrations' but also its extensive use by Jon Spencer, who regularly karate-kicks the air to play his - I was interested to learn a little more about how it works. Moving your right hand adjusts the pitch, apparently, while moving your left controls the volume level. Mark Kermode was on hand to talk about the instrument's importance with regard to film soundtracks, as a go-to tool when you want to create a creepy, disconcerting, otherworldly feel. Little wonder it's so prominent in sci-fi and horror movies.

But the really remarkable thing about the programme was not so much the story of the instrument itself as that of its inventor, Leon Termen. The Russian showed off his creation to Lenin himself at the Kremlin in 1922, accompanied by the Soviet leader's secretary on piano. His colourful life subsequently took in industrial espionage, an 11-year stay in the US (including a spell working at Alcatraz), a stint as a labour camp prisoner back in the Soviet Union when he developed cutting-edge bugging devices for spying and a prototype TV, and twilight years living in one room of a large shared apartment. All of this fascinating insight was supplied by Albert Glinsky, whose biography of Termen Theremin: Ether Music And Espionage certainly sounds like an engrossing read - and perhaps the basis for a biopic?

No comments: