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Theremin at Stanford

The Archive of Recorded Sound (ARS) and Stanford Media Preservation Lab (SMPL) recently worked with the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), specifically Emeritus Professor John Chowning and current CCRMA director and Duca Family Professor Chris Chafe, to locate, research, and digitize a series of videos from the Archive's CCRMA Tape Collection (ARS.0037) documenting a significant event in the history of CCRMA and electronic and computer music at Stanford. 

In September 1991, numerous pioneers of electronic and computer music, including Robert Moog and Max Mathews, convened at Stanford during the University's centennial weekend (Sept 27-29, 1991) for a concert and symposium honoring the then 95 year-old inventor of the first practical electronic musical instrument, Leon Theremin. Theremin's instrument, which bears his surname, has become arguably one of the most well known and recognizable electronic musical instruments ever devised, and has since inspired numerous subsequent inventions, such as Max Mathews' radio batons. It has been used in countless musical works, perhaps most famously in the Beach Boys 1966 hit, Good Vibrations. It also gave rise to the career of virtuoso Theremin performer, Clara Rockmore. 

Theremin's visit to Stanford was a highly significant moment, both for the University, and for music enthusiasts in general, as the inventor had very rarely been seen outside of his native USSR since 1938, following a number of years in which he travelled the globe to demonstrate his instrument, initially called the Thereminvox. Since 1938, he had in fact become a virtual prisoner in the USSR until Glasnost and Perestroika made it possible for him to venture outside his native land again. Many rumors circulated in the intervening years, some suggesting he had been shot during the Second World War as a German spy. His absence from Soviet musical press, served to heightened this suspicion. Some reference books even listed his death date as circa 1945. However, at a news conference during Theremin's visit to Stanford, Theremin admitted to being part of a team during the 1940s -1960s that had worked on devising a Soviet surveillance device…the so called "bug". This had led to his existence being concealed from the outside world.   

CCRMA hosted the symposium part of the weekend documented in two of the videos that have recently been digitized. Following a presentation by Leland Smith outlining his work to create a computer simulation of another of Theremin's inventions, the now illusive Rhythmicon, commissioned by composer Henry Cowell who wrote a number of works for the instrument, Smith then hosts a panel discussion with Theremin along with conductor, pianist, and acquaintance from Theremin's visits to the USA in the 1920s and 1930s, Nicolas Slonimsky.  The pair discuss the Rhythmicon, its operation, and comparison with the Theremin. The discussion then moves to a question and answer session with the audience, covering a number of topics related to electronic musical instrument design and creation, and Theremin's life and career. Informal interviews and general discussion with Theremin and Slonimsky were also captured throughout the day following this panel session, which offer further insights. 

Another video features part of the main event from the weekend, a concert in Frost Amphitheater entitled "Technology and Music: The Beginning and Now". The concert featured numerous performances of new works employing both the Thermin and other electronic instruments. Unfortunately, the video only captures part of the concert and misses some key performances, notably an arrangement of Rachmaninov's Vocalise, featuring Theremin's daughter Natasha Theremin playing the vocal parts on her father's instrument, accompanied by Max Mathews conducting the orchestral parts with his radio batons.

Theremin's visit to Stanford would prove to be one of the inventor's last appearances outside of the USSR. He died two years later in November 1993.

Thanks to SMPL and the Stanford Digital Repository (SDR), this significant event in Stanford's history is now captured and preserved for future researchers both at the University and beyond. 

Thanks go to Geoff Willard and Michael Angeletti at SMPL. The digitized material from Theremin's visit is now available to view at the Archive of Recorded Sound. Please contact the Archive to set up and appointment to see this material.