A Soviet Faust
Bulat Galeev 1995
B. Galeyev to the following chapter from his book on Leon Theremin
Late in 1995, the book "Soviet Faustus" by Bulat Galeyev, director of Experimental Aesthetics Institute "Prometei", was published in Kazan, Russia. Author and book's hero, Termen, were close friends for a long time that's why it is mainly based on personal conversations with him. The book reveals lot of new facts. It is a pity but we have not suceeded yet in translating and publishing whole book in West. Here I would like to familiarize you with a chapter from the book, entitled "Soviet Faustus in the Land of Yellow Devil" devoted to Termen's staying in USA within 1928-38 years period. I would like to remind you that theremin was demonstrated to V.I.Lenin in 1922 and pragmatic leader of proletariat proposed using the device as Kremlin alarm system. A bit later Termen invented first Soviet TV set and decision was made to use it for secret aims in this case too. It was then that military "Mephistos" from secret services noticed him and he did not reject cooperating with them, in full compliance with "Faustus" plot. But he did not cease active work as inventor and performer in the field of music. Then his life was sudden change, this being the theme of the chapter we would like to call your attention to (translated by collaborator of "Prometei" Institute V.Chudnovsky).
Soviet Faust in The Country of the Yellow Devil* (a chapter from the book)
by Bulat Galeyev
International exhibition was to be held in Frankfurt am Main in summer 1927. Its theme had close relation to music. Delegation from Soviet Russia also took part in it. One would think: " With what could surprise representatives of young Soviet Russia satiate Europian audience? May be Russians could astonish it with traces and tears of total breakdown?". Here is the passage from the article from our beloved newspaper "Pravda" : "Concerts only became the success when Soviet inventor, professor Termen took the floor with his lectures". "Celestial music", "voice of angel" , "ethereal music" - such were the enthusiastic reaction of newspapers, firstly of German ones, then of other countries. Is not it the miracle conducting the music itself, not the orchestra, music emerging from nothing, from air literaly by means of "beck of hand"? There are no keys and strings in the instrument. Link between the instrument and "beck of hand" is evident. But the link is ephemeral, not tangible one. In a word, it is a real miracle! Termen's lectures provoked storm of applauses in concert halls of Dresden, Hamburg, Munich, Leipzig, and that of Berlin Philharmonic Society. The exhibition had finished long ago and had been forgotten but Termen's triumphal performances kept going - this time in famous London "Albert Hall" and Paris "Grand Opera". Many celebrities of those times attended his concerts , such as writers Gerhard Hauptmann and Bernard Show, musicians Bruno Walter, Moris Ravel and Ottorino Respigi. According to Lev Sergeyevich himself he gave consent to pose together with many of them for newspaper photographers. Physicist Albert Einstein expressed his admiration with phrase which became winged:"Freely emerging from space sound is new phenomenon". A.Ioffe, who returned from one of his regular business trips to West, shared with new complements in "Pravda": "Exceptionaly great success had abroad radio musical performances of L.S.Termen, collaborator of Physical and Technical Insitute. There was no such influx of spectators and such success in Grand Opera in 35 preceding years.
We found also evidence of the success in travel notes of Soviet writer Yefim Zozulya, who was in Paris in that period: " I had learned from three-column newspaper headlines that the great invention of the engineer Termen was to be demonstrated at the Grand Opera. Such epithets as "of genius" alternated with the words "miracle of nature". Paris old-timers will hardly recall the occasion when Grand Opera was given to somebody on any purpose... The Grand Opera is so conservative, starting with operas contents, that one can count our Bolshoi Theater for frolic, young, practically adolescent institution. And this Grand Opera cancel the spectacle and gives its auditorium for an evening to unknown Termen, Soviet citizen. What I heard at the Grand Opera was unforgettable. There were moments when the entire huge hall with all its circles gave out exclamations of amazement and delight. I heard my voice too in general boom, this one also spontaneously escaping me... I attended the concert on the eve of my departure from Paris and practically all my way to home my ears ringed with passages from majestic symphony of the world, which was retrieved by a man from the air. These passages superimposed in my head on rumble of car wheels.".
One can suggest that such positive estimations were due to the fact that "Pravda", Zozulya wrote about their compatriot. Our newspaper "Izvestia" commended Termen: "Termen's invention significance is practically equal to the significance of automobile for transporting. His invention will have the best perspectives". But the temperature of boiling water in foreign press was even higher: "Every listner understands clearly that something new, colossal, having best perspectives came to life" (quote from Berlin newspaper). Liberal Europe made , though flaunting slightly, a declaration of love to young Russia, bastard of its social-democratic ideas: "Lev Termen overclassed Trotzky himself during three months of his tournaments here : he made "world revolution" in music!" (this is also qoutation from those days German newspapers). This compliment is the highest one.
All ended in Termen business trip to America. America, obviously, also became interested in him due to enthusiasm he provoked in Europe. Our goverment was interested in his trip too. As a result, Termen Lev Sergeyevich left to America on board of celebrated capitalistic steamship "Majestic" late in 1927. Formaly, he was sent by People Commissariate on Education to USA. But he got second task from those with whom he paled up when carrying out secret works. I don't care when and how did he come in close contacts with secret services: whether it was before his visit to Europe or this trip to America was his trial! My care is to note that agreement between Soviet Faust and Mephisto was the accomplished fact to the moment.
These facts were unknown to questioners, who made interviews with him in 60's and 70's. I also did not know about all this , at first. It was unknown a fortiriori to Termen's fellow traveller in his trip on "Majestic", noted violist I.Sigeti, who intentionaly met with Termen in Moscow Conservatory and had, as fate willed, to accompany descendant of albigo on his way to New World. I ask your permission to break all literary standards of direct quoting in written text and use documentary cinema standards, combining merely actual facts relating to the epoch I have in my disposal.
Here are the reminiscences of J.Szigeti published in New York in 1947 : "Our loungings in the winter garden of the ship, during which the Soviet inventor indulged in the romantic pastime of composing little Russian poems in the form of anagrams, were every so often interrupted by wireless messages bearing some of the biggest industrial and commercial names in America, offering Theremin Caruso-like fees (I distinctly remember one offer of $5000) for the privilege of a "preview" of the invention during a soiree in their homes, or, in the case of a cable signed by the owner of great department store, in auditorium of that store.
As Theremin and his secretary spoke no English, my wife and I had to convey to him the meaning of all this competition between Chicago's Mr.S., Detroit's Mr.F., and Philadelphia's Mr.W. But all we succeeded in conveying to him was names and figures, which did not seem to interest the young Soviet scientist; we could not get across any of the excitements that we felt - vicariously - at these cable offers, which to us seemed pretty fantastic. (My own fees had not then gone beyond the modest three-figure stages).
However, Theremin, imbued with the socialistic ideology, was calmly emphatic in his refusal to consider any of these offers and stuck to his original plan of giving the first presentation free of charge in the presence of press, of noted musiciancs, scientists, radio engineers, and the like... he always remained the researcher who tried to perfect his invention before thinking in terms of marketing. It was all very instructive for me..."[1. p. 225-226].
Well, Lev Sergeyevich! Is it possible to make such things? I think such behavior is inadmissible for professional secret service man. Termen's reaction was inexcusably natural and spontaneous. It was reaction of naif albigo, of Soviet man.
Separate book could be written about American period of his life, the American being its author. It was special, brilliant epopee.We will limit ourselfs to bringing together some of Termen's sparing, partial reminiscenses and quotations from American press.
He had flabbergasted from the very beginning journalists, who suceeded to get on board of "Majestic" on its way to New York, notifying them about devices he brought with him besides theremin:" Yesterday, as he sat explaining it workings he told of other insturments he had with him , based on similar principles - a bulgar alarm which can give a signal by means of impulses in the air; another which establishes sound connection between a flying airplane and a watcher below; still another , which reproduces and magnifies sounds from within the earth" (Dec.22, 1927, p.22). I swear I don't know what he told about. I quote the newspaper... But the main point was the "radiomusic", indeed.
The newspapers reaction was really an explosion. Eager for sensations America was astonished, touched and taped the envoy of Soviet Russia on the shoulder. Reviews style ranged from total immersing in the euphoria of general admiration and adoration to bluff cowboy humor! Let us listen attentively again to whisper of old newspapers, American ones this time: "Having tuned by a process which to a layman could only be compared to that of a man testing the heat of the boiler with his naked hand, he gave us, to begin with, Schubert's "Ave Maria"" says the Telegraph... "always his hand trembled like that of a violin player or mesmerist. His left hand meanwhile was occupied in pushing up and down an invisible vertical pump..." (New York Times,Jan.1 1928).
But there was a storm,typhoon of glowing accounts in the majority of cases :" Most prominent musicians of America had come to unanimous conclusion ,hearing the amazing insrument,that Termen's invention is the greatest achievement" (New York Times, 27 December 1927).
"Famous musicians, who listened with the greatest attention and seriousness to the performance were unanimous in praising it as a great scientific achievement" (New York Times, 25 January 1928). Kreisler, Rakhmaninov were among attendants of the first recital. And Toscanini volunteered trying the instrument personally. By the way,it was this concert Termen used also his light device at.
Triumph!... Termen performed concerts in most prestigeous concert halls of America: "Metropolitan Opera", "Carnegi Hall". 12 theremins ensemble performed the overture to R.Wagner's "Loengrin".Famous conductor Leopold Stokovsky took part in the concerts. Leading orchestras of USA competed for the right to perform together with Termen. Though, reporters chaffed slightly , made venomous remarks: " there will be no necessity in conductors in this case - Termen will be waving hands instead of them"
In any case, Termen was fascinated by American businessmen enterprise and quick response to novelties. Such firms as General Electric, Westinghouse, RCA begun producing serialy the theremins, total output being several thousand devices. Termen was asked to help instructing sellers of the new product. As a result,many of sellers became unexpectedly his " competitors" who left their counters for stage. 700 represetnatives of new profession "theremin player" were registered in musicians trade-union.His most talented, among favorite, apprentices, or, more precisely speaking, apprenticesses were Luci Rosen and Clara Rockmore.
He told me :" I earned lot of money and bought black suit, Cadilac. I moved from hotel to own house". Termen had rented five-storey house in New York for 99 years where he organized musical and choreographic studio. Termen recalled necessarily, with some wily coquetry, his precise New York adress (on "54-th Street") and even phone number, when telling about his life in America. He and his studio visited great Soviet film director S. Eisenstein , musicians - Gershvin, Ya. Heifetz, Ye. Menukhin and, naturally, all representatives of American elite.Charlie Chaplin have ordered original version of theremin for his films after visiting Termen.
Termen kept tirelessly perfecting his "radio music". His "Majestic" trip fellow Szigeti emphasized with continuing astonishment in his reminiscences that Lev Sergeyevich himself engaged constantly and selflessly in realizing of different kind "non-commercial" projects in spite of his grandiose success.For example, Termen created unique keyboard instrument "Rythmicon" on the request of musician G.Cowell, allowing free varying and control of soundings duration to get reachest rythmic combinations. (Rythmicon appeared to be excellent and it was then used by psychologists for their experiments.I believe, one exemplar of the device is still preserved in Stenford University). Another composer, P.Grainger, asked Termen to create automatic musical instrument reading notation directly from specially arranged score. This task was also solved excellently by Termen. Rapt clients created pieces for the instruments.
But Termen did not cease perfecting his theremin. He produced its bass version, accompanied then with several fingerboard and keyboard ones.And, finally, he invented "terpsitone" with control antenna being made in form of huge metal sheet hidden into the floor.Music was produced this time by dancing movements of the whole body, not only by hands).
"Ballerina was making very complicated pas on the stage....The music begun to pour suddenly from it,being absolutely unusual, charmingly beatifull and very rythmic. It seemed music followed every, even slight movement of the ballerina...".
This is the qoutation from Soviet science fiction story "Lilac toccata of Makhaon",written in 60s ,not from American press . I wonder whether the author knew that all he described has been in reality thirty years before. It was Termen who realized this in course of his American epopee .
He perfected also his light equipment. Termen synchronized with music stroboscopic effects to create light ornamental patterns. He met and argued with great American light artist Thomas Wilfred and also with creator of another famous electro-musical instrument M.Marteno. They planned to create New Art Society. He developed his early ideas of adding tactile effects to his "radio music" and light-music by means of specially invented control glove provided with electrical sensors for transmitting the effects to the audience. He also tried to add "gravitational" effects to the general synthesis lifting and sinking "walls" of the auditorium (by means of light effects, not literaly).
Any of the facts is amazing, stunning in itself, but Lev Sergeyevich "knocked me down" at each of our meetings inducing me to exclaim:" It is impossible!". Once upon a time, I had read in post-war magazine that noted American film avanguardist, author of many light-musical films, Mary-Ellen Bute experimented in Teremen studio when she was young . One day I asked Lev Sergeyevich about her. "I remember her very well. She was so young and pretty this Ellen Bute.She carryed out together with Einstein light-musical experiments in my studio. You should know such physicist". I exclaimed:"With what Einstein? With the very Einstein who is author of relativity theory?!". I know from books that you met with him in Europe. I know also that you played in duo with him (he on violin, you on the theremin) when he fled from fascist Germany to America... " "There were not only duos and not only with me. I hired the studio specially for them. Mary drew various pictures on his instructions. All walls were covered with them. They choose then the pictures to match to the music".
I hope I will not go mad! I wonder whether biographers of the great physicist know the fact? It is well known fact Einstein liked to be on friendly terms with young women. But does anybody know that he was friend with the woman on such unusual occassion?
From where did he take money for all these activities - studio, scientific charity? Is it possible that concert fees and money he got from "General Electric" were enough for such purposes? Or may be he got money from our intelligence services?The case is quite the opposite - it seems he helped them with money because he became finally the member of elitarian USA Millionaires Club, in which not everyone of the million possessing persons were adopted. Circle of his acquiantance became broader: Rockefeller, Du Pont, Morgan, Ford.To all appearnces , the main source of his revenues was "Teletouch Corp." firm specializing in producing original alarm systems.Their featured the same distant triggering principle Termen used at Kremlin demonstration. But this time they were activated not only by change in electric capacitance, but also by change in reflectance of light. Projecting device throw light spot onto a wall or a floor and once even a mouse pass over spot or only interrupt the light beam returning to the hidden photocell the general alarm arosed .
The potential clients list was tremendous, ranging from department-stores to prisons. To all appearances, there were enough establishments of both sorts in America in those days. Thats why Termen's accounts in dollars grew up with the same speed as those ones of "new Russians" in our days.
Termen was permanently asked to give advise on wide, most diverse scope of technical problems. Einstein proposed him to provide reliable transcontinental radiotelegraph communication line between USA and USSR because existing one worked with unexplainable irregularity. Here you are! New York Central Park administration asked creating unique technological attraction and got "Mahomet tomb" actually being in the air due to invisible magnetic field. He answered "here you are" to any proposal, to any request and no doubts there was the concrete result in all cases. Termen was included into list of most prominent persons of the world published in American directories "Who is who". By the way, I would like to return to his intelligence mission. We have somewhat forgotten about it but intelligence services did not forget him then.Each week he visited a shabby cafe on Fifth avenue in intervals between meetings with Charlie Chaplin and Rockefeller, between regular concert and permanent work in laboratory. Two men from our embassy wearing grey hats met him usually in the cafe. " Their first words were :"Drink!". They poured me two glasses of vodka , making me drink them before our conversation begun (Lev Sergeyevich's voice trembled with indignation and resentment). Eh, they distrusted me ?" Oh, Lev Sergeyevich what was necessity to treat you in such way? It is a pity, indeed, I was not together with you. Be sure, I could help you to resolve this problem sharing the portion of vodka. May be you it was bad idea to contact with them at all? May be the better variant would be to stay home and do not perform concerts in any Metropolitan Opera and Carnegi Hall? Most likely, there was no Soviet intellectual who was proposed collaboration with secret services either at home or abroad. It was not obligatory to give consent. Indeed, it is very simple to speculate on how could be solved problems of another person.What is done is done. " But I have figured out eventually how to remain sober during the meetings. I took for the rule eating a pack of butter before them". I asked him :" What sort of questions did they ask?". " Well, they asked me various silly things. At one meeting they asked dimensions of new airplain muffler, at another gave me the task getting information about prisoners of American prisons..". I had never understood at the beginning whether he payed permanent expenses of secret services on vodka. One day later he bent forward to me and said smiling, in low voice , his eyes being full of mischief: "You know, I was carring out the same mission in America as Richard Zorge did in Japan ". And I did not understand again whether it was a joke or he said the truth. I have not understood it till now, but judging on his last, though also very cautious interviews he gave during "perestroika",Termen did his best to be of maximum benefit in this "parallel" role too: "My conversations with people in American military were not confined to music. I was well-informed about the plans brewing on the American political Olympus. From what I knew I concluded the nazi-fascist axis would be our enemy in the next war - not the United States.Chief of Red Army Intelligence Department Janis Berzins, whom I knew as Peteris, was of the same opinion".
Judging on the popular books about spyes secret services use "mosaic" technique for getting information. Termen "mosaic" was enough detailed and variegated. Besides artists and businessmen Termen retained in his memory for some reason among participants of his high society, small talks in his studio then obscure lieutenant-colonel D.Eisenhower and also then undistinguished military expert L.Groves who became several years later main supervisor of atomic "Manhattan" project. I wonder whether American counterspy services suspected then that Termen got second, secret, task.Lev Sergeyevich himself felt no guilty towards hospitable America. He grew fond of this industrious country and was confident that his secret activity made no harm to it. And his legal life was always of sheer benefit to America!
I don't understand why did FBI have not disclose him and how could he combine , as a matter of fact, concerts with multi-million business affairs and inttelligence mission, remaining , to all appearances, Soviet citizen who made no secret of this. Termen had created all his firms and studios "in concordance with Soviet goverment" as he emphasized regularly.In 30s our goverment was preoccupied with problem of diplomatic recognition of USSR. Termen was of opinion that his work in USA would contribute to enhancing our country prestige, USSR needed in great measure.It was with proud that Lev Sergeyevich recollected how he had insisted to indicate Leningrad as residual place on the advertizing posters announcing his concert in Metropolitan Opera (in the case they indicated Moscow he could be taken for ordinary emigrant ). Termen took part in the concert arranged in Soviet diplomatic representatives office on the occassion of solemn welcome of Valery Chkalov and other participants of famous transatlantic non-stop flight from USSR to USA. What is more, he did not fear presenting the program consisting of Soviet composers songs during local Communist party election gathering. Such behaviour does not match with spy's prerogatives. But it might be the intelligence services game of such high class that it is none of our business... Well...
The main point was that American millionaire Lev Termen remained, had to remain loyal Soviet citizen in his private life. He arrived to America with his wife. He told: "Her name was Katyusha and she was noblewoman ". It seems to me she was the sister of A.P. Konstantinov, his successor in investigations in physical and technical institute in "distant vision" field (By the way, it is Konstantinov who is considered officialy to be the pioneer of Soviet television.The main reason is that receiving tube, "iconoscope", he invented in 1930, was purely electronical, as in modern TV sets,in contrast to Termen's electro-mechanical device. " My wife worked in medical institution in the environs of New York. Thats why we didn't meet for several days , at times.
One day a young man came to me and said that my wife and he are in love with each other. I could simply beat him but I had got to know from newspapers that an unpleasent provocation is undertaken.It turned out he to be American fascist and I have divorced with my wife after having discussed the situation with our embassy. Several years later I married very young, very smart Black ballerina Lavinia Poole-Williams, who worked in my studio. I had registered my marriage in Soviet embassy, getting marriage certificate N1" .
But their happy life together was very short, only few months. In 1938, millionaire Termen dissappeared unexpectedly and imperceptibly, "as Englishman", from America, getting fixed up as mate of Soviet steamship "Old bolshevik", which was in New York port at the moment. He had not even suceeded in closing his affairs when parting. The only affair he succeded to carry out was buying some equipment necessary for his Motherland... There left far behind the board of "Old bolshevik" America with its glittering lights and smiling people, America where left his young wife. He never met her in his life, keeping his certificate number one till his last days. All his equipment left in his American studio. I was told by Termen that this unexpected departure was his own idea: he said he felt that the war would begin soon and thought he should return to the Motherland. In any case, "Old bolshevik" arrived to the port of Leningrad late in 1938.Termen,who get used to excited welcomes, was surprised and depressed by the absence of journalists and enthusiastic crowds. He saw empty moorages and dead faces of people being afraid of recognizing each other.His motherland plunged into the gloom of Stalin's Middle Age while he was American "triumpher". It was from here, from this pier that his road to prisons and prison-camps had begun.
1. Szigeti J. With
strings attached. - N.Y.,1947, pp.225-226.
*(This text is the translation of a chapter from the book by Galeyev " Soviet Faust (Lev Termen - pioneer of electronic art)" published in Russian in Kazan in 1995. Yellow devil is the symbolic designation of gold, money. It was famous Soviet writer Maxim Gorki who called New York as City of Yellow Devil in its time. Galeyev use the term in ironic sense here).
Tagged: Leon Theremin