Léon Theremin

By: Erik Davis
August 15, 2009

Child of St. Petersburg, bug-maker for the KGB, and husband of the African-American dancer Lavinia Williams, LÉON THEREMIN (1896-1993) achieved immortality through the eponymous electronic instrument he invented in 1920. Originally called the “aetherphone,” the theremin was one of the first electronic instruments, and certainly — with its spectral tone and incorporeal interface — one of the spookiest. Leon set his sights high: his prodigee Clara Rockmore performed the classics at Carnegie Hall, while composers like Ives, Varese, and Shostakovich included the instrument in their scores. But by the 1950s, Theremin’s device had performed a classic hi-lo flip-flop, as composers started milking the thing for eerie exotica in the soundtracks for flicks like Spellbound, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Thing. Though Brian Wilson used a modified theremin for “Good Vibrations,” the instrument’s timbre and tones have become permanently welded to the pop uncanny.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: | Nicolas Roeg |

READ MORE about members of the Hardboiled Generation (1894-1903).


HiLo Heroes, Music