Remembering Leon Theremin

Celebrating Electronic Music Titan, the Man Bob Moog Called his Virtual Mentor


Leon Theremin in 1991 at Stanford University; Photo credit: Bob Moog Foundation courtesy of Renee Moog

Leon Theremin’s early contributions to electronic music are as profound as any, and his impact on Bob Moog’s life and career are equally as deep. For those of you who don’t know, Bob began building theremins when he was 14 — back in 1948. By the time he was 19, he wrote his first article for Radio and Television News entitled The Theremin which, informational and instructional, guided the reader on how to build their own theremin. From this article Bob received so many requests for theremin parts that he launched his first company, R.A. Moog, Co., out of the basement of his parent’s house in Flushing, Queens, New York.

Bob built and sold theremin parts, kits and assembled instruments exclusively until 1963, when he met experimental jazz composer Herb Deutsch at a state music educator’s conference.  Bob was there representing his theremin-based company, R.A. Moog, Co. Even this meeting, one that would play a pivotal role in Bob’s career and in the course of electronic music itself, was based on Herb having one of Bob’s early  Melodia theremins. Through Bob’s extensive work with the theremin, Herb felt compelled to ask him to embark on a road that would eventually lead to their collaboration on what would become the Moog synthesizer.

Although Bob had a long, illustrious career in synthesizer design, the theremin remained a current throughout work. In 1991, Bob introduced the 91 Series of vintage style theremins, and the best-selling Etherwave was soon to follow. His connection to the theremin was not only to the instrument itself, but even more so to the man who created its elegant design. In this passage from the forward of Albert Glinsky’s definitive biography Theremin, Bob writes the following about his connection to Leon Theremin:

Leon Theremin and Bob Moog, 1991

“Around this time, the documentary filmmaker Steven Martin contacted me. He told me that he planned to produce a feature-length documentary film on Theremin’s life and work, and he asked for my assistance. He wanted to film Clara Rockmore as she played her theremin in public, but her instrument was not working at the time, and in fact had not been working for several years. Martin asked me to come to Ms. Rockmore’s apartment to help restore her instrument. The opportunity to work on an instrument that Leon Theremin himself had built was too attractive to resist, so I agreed to do it. I arrived at Mrs. Rockmore’s apartment with my tool kit and test equipment on a Friday. Michael Jansen (Mrs. Rockmore’s regular technician) and I completely dismantled her instrument. We found many components that were faulty and had to be replaced. By Sunday afternoon we had reassembled the instrument. Mrs. Rockmore then tried it by playing a few notes. “No” she said impatiently, “it doesn’t play right”. Michael and I reset some internal adjustments, and Mrs. Rockmore  tried the instrument again. “No, it’s still not right” she said. Once again, we reset the adjustments. Mrs. Rockmore tried a few notes, then proceeded with George Gershwin’s “Summertime” from beginning to end. At the end, tears were in her eyes. She turned to us and said “I was afraid I would never be able to play that instrument again.” At that moment I sensed a strong spiritual connection with Leon Theremin, a feeling that remains with me even now. I consider that that moment was the high point of my professional career.

August 15th marked what would have been Leon Theremin’s 115th birthday, making this an apt time of year to pay tribute. Leon Theremin, wherever in the ether you may be, we remember now and always for your pioneering work — work that lives on through so many people, and so much music,  to this day.