Backlist Bop: Rockmore, not less

Rockmore_and_TermenYou can’t have Women’s History Month without musician-genius Clara Rockmore (left in the photo). The appropriately named Rockmore was a master of the theremin, that haunting/creepy sound-maker that entered our consciousness through 1950s science fiction films, “Good Vibrations,” twentieth-century electronica, and by inspiring the Moog synthesizer.

The theremin, it will not surprise you, had a strange history. Russian scientist and radio engineer Leon Theremin (right in the photo) invented the device that bears his name and showed it to the world in 1920. The only instrument that is played without being touched, it became an international sensation.

glinskyBut, as Albert Glinsky shows in his acclaimed book Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage, the story of the instrument and its inventor goes way beyond music history.

Theremin surrendered his life and work to the service of Soviet state espionage. On assignment in Depression-era America, he became the toast of New York society and worked the engines of capitalist commerce while passing data on U.S. industrial technology to the Soviet apparat. Following his sudden disappearance from New York in 1938, Theremin ended up in a Siberian labor camp and subsequently vanished into the top-secret Soviet intelligence machine, presumed dead for nearly thirty years. Using the same technology that lay behind the theremin, he designed bugging devices that eavesdropped on U.S. diplomatic offices and stood at the center of a pivotal cold war confrontation. Glinsky masterfully blends the whimsical and the treacherous into a chronicle that takes in everything from the KGB to Macy’s store windows, Alcatraz to the Beach Boys, Hollywood thrillers to the United Nations, Joseph Stalin to Shirley Temple. Theremin’s world of espionage and invention is an amazing drama of hidden loyalties, mixed motivations, and an irrepressibly creative spirit.