The Radio Science Orchestra presents

Theremin 100

Celebrating a Century of Electronic Music

To celebrate the accession of a rare RCA Theremin to the collection of the London Science Museum and to mark the centenary of the theremin's invention (1919-20), the Radio Science Orchestra presents THEREMIN 100: an audio-visual spectacular saluting a century of electronic music.

Theremin 100

Theremin 100 uses a live performance of original and adapted music, IMAX video, 3D sound and narration to chart the remarkable story of the world’s first comercially-available electronic musical instrument, the only to be played without physical contact. The 100-year tale of the theremin spans two world wars, struggles between Russia and America, communism and capitalism, idealism and harsh reality. It features cultural icons from Lenin to Led Zeppelin and sees musical instruments transformed into tools of political espionage. Above all, it is the story of one mysterious man, whose visionary creation stirred the world, saw his loyalties divided, and almost cost him his life.

STAGE: theremins, ondes Martenot, Moog and modular synthesizers, VCS3, concert harp, saxophones, vocal harmonies, melodica, keyboard, electric guitar, bass, percussion, Illumovox, Orb, Atomium and RCA Theremin.

REPERTOIRE: spanning space-age pop, Claude Debussy, Kraftwerk, Barry Gray, Henry Purcell, Ron Grainer and original RSO compositions.

VISION: archival footage, avatar narrator, steam-powered gramophone, Sci-Fi, vintage advertising, public information films, “Memories of the Future”

STORY: 

Music from the Ether

In 1919, Russian radio engineer, cellist and visionary Leon Theremin, stumbles on the secret of drawing music from the charged air. His invention astonishes scientists and concert-goers alike. Lenin summons Theremin to the Kremlin for a private demonstration. Convinced of the instrument's potential to project Soviet power and transform the country's flagging economy, the Soviet government sends Theremin on a state-sanctioned world tour; he astounds the audiences of Paris, Cologne, Berlin and London; he crosses paths with Albert Einstein, Sergei Rachmaninoff, George Gershwin, Maurice Martenot and George Bernard Shaw; newspapers excitedly prophesy the extinction of the orchestral; electricity (and music) are in the air.

MOOD: Lenin proclaims “Communism is Soviet Power plus Electrification!”; 19th century classics with a modern twist.

A Theremin in Every Home

Theremin arrives in New York City in 1927 to a storm of paparazzi; the instrument Lenin had hailed as a proletarian triumph captivates capitalist America. Theremin sets up a lab in Manhattan, and secures a staggering $100,000 contract with the Radio Corporation of America. Advertisements acclaim the 1929 RCA Theremin as "the easiest of all instruments to play". Only 500 instruments are produced and the venture is a financial disaster. Theremin's creative endeavours continue with experiments in television, defensive systems for Alcatraz, and an entire orchestra of electronic instruments at Carnegie Hall.

Despite this, his financial and social affairs end in tatters: creditors snap at his heels, his marriage to the black dancer Lavinia Williams sees him publicly ostracised, and he is increasingly suspected of espionage. In September 1938, Leon Theremin disappears. No-one is told of his departure; Lavinia assumes he has been kidnapped by Stalin's brutal agents.

MOOD: Jazz age meets Electronics and the beat of the Rhythmicon; an entire orchestra of electronic instruments

Cosmic Tones - From Science to Sci-Fi

Isolated from their inventor, surviving theremins from RCA's limited production run quickly find a new role: their ghostly wailings became the leitmotif for psychological thrillers and the rapidly-expanding genre of science-fiction: Music out of the Moon, It Came from Outer Space, The Lost Weekend, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Mars Attacks! ... from 1939 onward the theremin gains, unbeknownst to its inventor, an association with the otherworldly which persists to the present day.

MOOD: Space-age exotica; Hi-Fi Sci-Fi; "klaatu barada niktu!" Kenneth Arnold, flying saucers attack; "by 1979 man will have colonised the moon…”

Imprisonment and Espionage

Clara Rockmore had been Theremin's star pupil in the 30s. Holidaying in Moscow in 1962, she furtively asks a guest about the inventor who was her lifelong inspiration, but mysteriously vanished decades ago. "Theremin?" the man replies, "I had lunch with him today"; Clara's heart leaps, and the next day she meets the professor on the rumbling lines of the Moscow city line. Theremin, glancing about at invisible spies as he speaks, tells Clara that he was kidnapped, and taken to Kolyma Internment Camp in the furthest reaches of Siberia. His convictions had been fabricated, his confession elicited under torture. He was sent there to die.

Knowing his life was in danger, Leon had secretly begun work on a project that he knew would guarantee his survival. This was no tunnel or escape route, but a spying device so powerful and brilliant in its conception that it could not be ignored – requiring no electricity, and practically undetectable. Unveiling his device after years of labour, Theremin was presented with the Stalin Prize, the highest state honour.

He was finally freed. With communism collapsing behind him, Leon Theremin left Russia, for one last world tour.

MOOD: neoclassical reflections; lost decades blur into the Siberian snow

Ode to an Electronic Future

In 1991, Leon Theremin returns to America. For the 95 year-old inventor, it is an almost hallucinatory experience. Reunited with his Clara, he wanders the kaleidoscopic metropolis in open-eyed amazement. Standing in the roaring hubbub of Times Square, the American altar to electronic glitz, he struggles to hold back tears. Music halls are filled with the sounds of electronic orchestras, drum machines, synthesizers, and electronic pianos; doors swing open without touch...

MOOD: Interconnected marvel of sound, light, and technology - celebrating Leon - the architect of a future that has finally arrived.

THE RADIO SCIENCE ORCHESTRA

A modular Space Age Pop ensemble inspired by the birth of electronic music: uniting Theremin, Martenot, and Moog; the Radio Science Orchestra brings you exotica, neoclassical, and lounge from the birth of radio to the atomic age and beyond. The ensemble has met with critical acclaim for its performances at TED, the Southbank Centre, London’s ICA, the Shanghai Music Festival, the Bath ICIA, the British Library, and Glastonbury Festival.

Bruce Woolley (Vocals, Guitar, Arrangement)
Bruce Woolley is an English record producer and composer, co-founder of the Radio Science Orchestra. His writing and collaborative credits include Thomas Dolby, Grace Jones, Nicki Minaj, Baz Luhrmann, the Orb and Will.i.am, and he keeps a busy schedule as producer for his label, Gramophone Records. In 1981 Bruce's international hit - the Ivor Novello Award-nominated "Video Killed The Radio Star" – was the first song aired on MTV and in 2011, Bruce received a Gold Medal from the BMI.

Andy Visser (Saxophones, Vox, Arrangement, Programming)
Co-founder of the RSO, Andy is a multi-instrumentalist, playing saxophones, keyboards, flute, bass clarinet and electronics in various lineups including Death in Vegas, ONL, The Alice Band and the Radio Science Orchestra. He is also a sound designer and has worked on international projects for Sony, Nokia, Dolby, Samsung and Shell’s “Electric Storm”. Andy’s compositions have been broadcast on terrestrial TV and Radio networks. He released his first album in 2007 to critical acclaim and is currently producing a follow-up.

Joy Smith (Harp, Keys, Melodica)
Multi-instrumentalist Joy Smith has performed harp with the Gabrieli Consort, The Sixteen, The Monteverdi Continuo Ensemble, and the New London Consort. Her eclectic taste in music has led her to play in an unusual array of venues from the Royal Albert Hall to the Café de Paris and she is regularly found travelling the world with her arsenal of seven harps. She is baroque harpist for Il Fagioilini and the State Opera in Munich and is co-director of the ensemble 'Eclipse'. She brings knowledge of folk, baroque, and classical musicianship to the orchestra's space-age ensemble.

Charlie Draper (Theremin, Ondes, Transcriptions, Text)
Charlie Draper plays the space-controlled theremin and the ondes Martenot. He has performed for the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, WorldCon Philharmonic Orchestra, British Library, WOMAD Festival, Welsh National Opera House, London ExCEL Centre, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Joe's Pub NYC, and been heard on ITV, Channel 4, BBC 1, BBC Radio 3, and BuzzFeed. He has played many principal works for theremin and orchestra, including Schillinger's "First Airphonic Suite" (UK premiere), Rózsa's "Spellbound Concerto", Herrmann's "Suite from the Day the Earth Stood Still" and Elfman's "Mars Attacks!".

Victor Charnwood (Narration)
Narrator for RSO events, Victor Charnwood weaves eloquent tapestries of retro-futurism. He draws on themes from the birth of radio to cybernetic revolt, from the Space Race to simulacra, and from the Sphäraphon to the music of the spheres. He traverses the permeable boundaries between science fact and science fiction, revealing unexpected connections and challenging prevailing orthodoxies.

The theremin specifically, and Leon Theremin’s work in general is the biggest, fattest, most important cornerstone of the whole electronic music medium. That’s where it all began
— Robert R. Moog

Leon Theremin demonstrates his invention in London, 1927

We must advertise this instrument in every possible way. We have to show it to the whole country.
— Vladimir I. Lenin, 1922

Summertime - The Radio Science Orchestra

Leon Theremin has touched the lives of countless musicians and scientists, and his work is a vital cornerstone of our contemporary music technology... [he] has been my hero and mentor for most of my life
— Robert R. Moog, 2000
‘Memories Of The Future is a brave and highly idiosyncratic undertaking ... combining the information-rich commentary .... the music of The Radio Science Orchestra and a dense visual narrative, they manage to execute their concept with considerable panache and charm.
— Wire Magazine Review, "Memories of the Future"
Without his instrument there could have been no synthesizer, no possibility for infinite combinations of sound with electricity.
— Albert Glinsky, 2000
By the end of ‘Born Under Sputnik’ . . . . The RSO have achieved something very intriguing. We are no longer calculating or measuring the interaction between the narrative and the music, but are fully absorbed into the newsreel of our memories of the future.
— Wire Magazine Review, "Born under Sputnik"

References

  • Andy Baron & Mike Buffington, RCATheremin.com (2018)
  • Albert Glinsky, Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage (2000)
  • Andrei Smirnov, Sound in Z: Experiments in Sound and Electronic Music in Early 20th Century Russia (2013)
  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (1973/4)