My Termen

By Eliot Fintushel

"In Russia, one of his close assistants, a woman, died early in the 1920s, and it was a terrible shock to everybody, because she was a member of the group, and also, they worked together in various electrical inventions. Theremin said, 'We must not cry over the dead body of our close assistant. We must immediately take steps to create an instrument that would revivify a dead body, and not consider "dead" as an end.'"

—Nicolas Slonimsky, interviewed in Theremin, An Electronic Odyssey (1993) directed by S. Martin


Is outside my coldwater flats a car alarm singing. I will throw open the window. Comes another and another, all over dark city. How it fills my heart with joy.

I shall have the girl bring tea, and we shall listen.

Let us share our views. For me, how to say, soon shall sing the fat lady. Door is shut. Sun is black. Only I think of my Termen. Since many years my Termen is dead. I made acquaintance of Lev Sergeivich Termen in 1938, in Gulag, following his repatriation from New York City, courtesy NKVD. My assignment at such time shall be to befriend my Termen for purpose of informing agency concerning thoughts and activities of same.

Already was my Termen famous in even capitalist countries for one's musical inventions. He was not depressed at such time, in Gulag, even though it was not permitted he should have any longer communication with American wife in New York. He wished to be of assistance in war effort vs. Nazis, isn't it? With end of war, however, is my Termen eschew such continuing military efforts. For was he not, in his heart, an artist?

"Mikhail,"—his very first words to me—"you are too young that you shall be so always sad. Make once in a while, perhaps, a joke, a witticism, yes, can you? Come, we shall discover new things together."

My own self, I am orphan since many years, thank you to falling of heavy torch cylinder while my father shall work on Trans-Siberian Railway in Baikal; at such time I am smaller than wink of humming bird. Result: I had never a father but my Termen. Constantly I shall hiding my eyes to weep, not for sadness, but by reason he has made me so happy, my Termen.

An artist he was. I think of bastard Nuzhin at Moscow Conservatory maybe '66, maybe '67, tell my dearly beloved, my Lev Sergeivich, saying: "Electricity not for music, Comrade Termen. Electricity for kill our enemies." Total typical. Nuzhin is small man in it looks like opera jacket. So tight and starched it is, this jacket crackles when Nuzhin shall even breathe. Moustaches has this Nuzhin and perfect small hands like a rubber baby doll his hands. My Termen, my eagle, tall and square his jaw, and eyes him blue like ocean; beside my eagle, Nuzhin is ill chicken. This eagle, my Termen, even was darling of V.I. Lenin. I have seen the documentation. But, now days, the ill chicken has behind it, what, claws and teeth of Russian bear.

Nuzhin shall snap fingers, and four laboratory assistants are removing to junk pile all what my Termen has wrought. Even also prototype Terpistone machine, which it shall squeal and twerp as Nuzhin goons shall near it. Such comedy it was. Similar sound it shall be from one's Viper car alarm come many years hence. And my Termen whispered to me (and that evening I shall secretly report same to my superiors at NKVD):

"Patience, Mikhail, patience."

Just wait, and enemies die, I think so. I continue bring my Termen electrical components and all requirements what he shall make of me, never minding Nuzhin idiot apparatchik. Few years later, no more USSR, no more Nuzhin, but my Termen still make music from electricity.

Happy thought.

But Nuzhin's enemies die likewise. My Termen dead 1993, soon after concert demonstration at Koninslijk Conservatory, the Hague. What he play, this song of one's childhood: "May the sun shining forever, may myself also shining forever . . ."

My teeth are rotten, skin is yellow, and bones on fire. In these ears is ringing voice of fat lady. Yet will I recall this song and hope.


Men know him my Termen even today by reason of one's Beach Boys. My baby has it good vibrations. She giving to me excitations. Also, has one not heard such theremin in multiple science fictional movies them? For examples, "Klaatu barada nikto." Woo woo, so forth. Here is one's theremin. Such theremin is making in all cases this ethereal sound. In 1920s is RCA Victor for short time manufacturing same for American bourgeoisie. No other musical instrument one can play by touch the air. Like old Rasputin, making it blessing or cursing, hands like water, hands like claws, thereminist shall gesture before the two antennas, rod and ring, disturbing electromagnetical field. So capacitance shall change, circuit resonance shall change, and heterodyne effect shall ensue, where one's pitch and one's volume shall rise or fall. I have seen the documentation.

Has not one experienced this with radio whine when one moves about the room, and the static shall sing? So my Termen already had observed in 1919 at Yoffee Institute, when he is inventing said instrument. This is one's theremin, what my Termen called ethervox or termenvox, voice of Termen.


Ah! Another car alarm, lovely to me as song of skylark. When I should acquire it an automobile, I shall certainly install a Viper. But now I must absorb it my tears.

Another cup of tea, my girl, to sharpen one's memory!


"Mikhail," he say me once, "you have no idea how happy it was, 1920s, 1930s, when I was myself living in New York City. I had it entire brownstone on 54th Street, Manhattan Island, Mikhail, courtesy People's Commissariat of Education—and certain rich American friends . . ." Now his eyes shall tear, and he shall be singing, "May myself also living forever . . ."

"Rich Americans, Lev Sergeivich?"

"What? Oh, yes, Rockefeller, Morgan, Dupont, they expressed interest in certain—applications concerning variable oscillations and . . ."

"And, Lev Sergeivich . . . ?"

"Longevity."

"Ah." But I do not understand.

"Oh, Mikhail, and Carnegie Hall, when I would concertize . . . !" In those days, my Termen no longer he would brook his tears. They trickle down white cheeks, cheeks of hoarfrost and chipped paint, and he pulls it out the press clippings. There is my Termen, like a god he was, tall and handsome, with ten men and women, tall and handsome, on the stage of the great hall. They stand under diamond-shaped speakers, and before each one of them an ethervox cabinet with ring and with rod, what you shall call "theremin."

"Such beautiful music we made, Mikhail!"

"Manhattan Island!" again I am exclaiming.

"Yes. I invented many things there."

"I have seen the documentation, Lev Sergeivich."

"Many musical innovations. I let Einstein use my rooms there, and many great musicians."

"You loved your country so much, Lev Sergeivich, you gave up all this and your wife, the ballerina, and you returned for the war effort . . ."

"They had guns. In '38 it was. They came in the night, the NKVD, to my rooms. Lavinia could not prevent them. They took me to a certain boat. And then I was in Russia. You see how it happens."

"Alas. Total typical."


"Theremin" is actual ancestral family name of my Lev Sergeivich, what it comes from Albigensian France. Such noble brow, he had. In factual, my Termen is descendant from survivor of the slaughter at Béziers. This ancestor fled with wife when Papal troops invaded in year 1209. So Termen inform to me. "May the sun shining forever, Mikhail. This my grandmother told me: when Papal legate rode out of Carcassonne, was smoke and ruin. To Béziers this holy man rode, to rout Albigo heretics. His captain asked him, 'Whom shall we slay? Whom shall we spare? We cannot tell heretics from faithful.'

"And Mikhail,"—laying it his frail hand on my shoulder—"the Papal legate said, and you can see the documentation in Encyclopedia Britannica: 'Kill them all. God will know his own.'"

"Terrible," I say him. This we spoke at same Moscow Conservatory in a room just emptied of all my Termen's equipments it was. That the square footage should rather be used for "kill our enemies" than for make music. Bare and echoing it was, with smell like plaster and dead skin. We sat it on shipping crates with stain of petroleum and fish. Shards of broken radio lamps littering floor.

"No, no," say my Termen. "The Papal legate—what you think!—he is doing us Albigo a kindness when he slay all. If cow shall eat grapes, shall not her turds reseed the vineyard? Many in Béziers practiced the endura: to fast and fast, to starve away the flesh. One is all spirit then. Do you see, Mikhail?"

"Suicide?" I say him.

"No." My Termen, his manicure is at this time imperfectly maintained. When he shall clutch my arms one's nails dig in. "Only the ignorant believe in death. A man is of the ether. My Albigo fathers believed that the Holy One penetrated the ear of Mary, and so was the Christ brought forth. So like does the music of my termenvox, isn't it?" From my biceps, thanks to God, he takes it his fingers, and he waves them like water, like claws, as if to playing the termenvox, what we call theremin.

He sings: "May myself also shining forever!"

He says me: "Mikhail, why should one die? It is exactly like my termenvox. In such cabinet, we have two oscillators, one constant and one variable." My Termen waving his hand like water, like claw, to show me variable. "This variable frequency is oneself, and the constant, Mikhail, is, let us to say, Mother Earth." He grabs it again my arms and to shake me. "Mikhail, if two children shall swing on a single branch, their oscillations shall pull together. If one shall not mightily resist, they shall at last swing in same rhythm, as one."

Like camel, his long face, and sad, what my Termen clucks and letting me to go. "In termenvox, when variable frequency shall be low, it shall be pulled together with one's constant—and we have zero beat."

"Zero beat?" Why this phrase how it should chill me?

He nods. "However, give me correct components, Mikhail,"—once again he clutching hands as if to grip me, only he shall not touch me this time, but only air—"give me correct components, and we shall reverse men's zero beat. We shall shine forever."


Now, for a moment, is silent the car alarms, and the girl lays her withered head on my shoulder, but soon I shall hearing another Viper, be sure. Out of silence they are coming. I shall make now a witticism in English language, so expert I am become: it is as the Crucified One said in Gospel of Matthew 12:34, "regeneration of Vipers."

Getting it?

The girl clears away my tea things. She shall know not to speak when I am so. Was she not also intimate with my Termen? She shall move slowly—perhaps one's rheumatism has returned. Still she is alive, she is grateful.


New York is full with such car alarm, thanks to God. Ah, such children of one's night. What sweet music they making.

Technology for same, is it not from my Termen? After NKVD is spiriting my Termen from New York America back to Mother Russia, they work him to invent bad things against our enemies. Later he shall receive Stalin Award First Class, for he invented it buran, what you call "bug." I have seen the documentation. Buran inside a silver eagle on wall of American embassy in Moscow, buran in Stalin's his own apartment. Also, after Lindbergh kidnapping, my Termen show me he make cradle alarm, like one's Viper it was, what it make such wailing when a person should to come near this cradle.

"But kidnapping, espionage, these matters mean me nothing," my Termen whisper. We were walking at this time in woods outside Moscow near dacha of Vasili Yagivorof, a circus clown of our acquaintance. 1958, it was, or I mistake. In Russia, at this time such persons were held in high regard. They give them to tour and spreading good will how once they gave my Termen to tour and to spread good will. But such circus persons, it may happen, one knows to have KGB connection, Komitat Gosudarstvennoi Bezopastnosti, what we formerly call NKVD. Therefore was my Termen to whisper. (Only he does not know that my own self is ear for KGB.)

I say: "What then shall mean you something?"

My Termen's brow is brooding cloud over such kind eyes he has. "Our coworker, the girl Olga Chevchenko, has passed from us."

"I knew of her illness, Lev Sergeivich. I am terrifically sorry."

"We must not be sorry. We must work even harder to overcome such setback. Once before, Mikhail, in 1920, I shall have seen a laboratory assistant, also a young girl, to die; at such time I vowed I should find way to reverse such calamity. This new death, Mikhail, must not stand."

"What, are we not mortal, Lev Sergeivich? Are we not dust?"

"One is ether, Mikhail. Only let us reverse a certain field polarity, and the 'dead' shall live again. The girl shall live again. Mikhail, I need some components—and a regular supply of dry ice . . ."


One day, winter 1940, I find my Termen reading article in Pravda, slap thigh and cry out, "Here it is! Here it is!" Tears out article. NKVD at that time engaging me already I should report on activities of Termen. I find it complete newspaper same issue and compare for missing piece. Is article pertaining to Washington Tacoma Bridge collapse. Inferior capitalist engineers. I say my Termen, "What for this should interest yourself?"

My Termen will not explain me. Only he shall give me list of electronic parts, radio lamps, coils, and grids, so forth, which he shall newly require. I take care of my Termen, this my assignment. Also, yes, OK, to note his activities for NKVD. But I leave somethings out from official log, isn't it? When my Termen he ask me for such and such radio tube, for such and such potentiometer what it has no military explanation, I supply NQA—no questions asked—and put it to petty cash, not itemize. Let them dump his lovely machinery, the apparatchiks; I will serve.

But somehow they are discovering regarding my Termen his interest. "This Tacoma Bridge," my superiors are inquiring of myself, "what is this of an interest to L.S. Termen?" This they shall ask me via drop box hidden by NKVD in pile of needles under larch tree outside confinement area of scientist prisoners in Omsk, for I should not reveal myself my affiliations. I am deep cover, "lifelong friend" my posture shall be.

In factually, for inform NKVD, I discover collapse of Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge was by reason of resonance. Same why soldiers should not march in step when crossing any bridge, which can create such resonance. Is this not similar principle as one's theremin? And of his also Terpistone, what it shall produce a music from one's dancing on same. Few years earlier was Clara Rockmore playing such Terpistone in New York City. And in same manner, due to Terpistone, my Termen met his ballet dancer, Lavinia Williams, but NKVD came in the night and extracted him forever from her intimacies.

Falling bridge, rising music, what shall this mean? I give my Termen all what he should ask, but one has no evidence of what he shall be fabricating until end of USSR, when certain documentation shall be released.

One day can it be I am hearing voice of, yes, Josef Vissarionovich Stalin from rooms of Lev Sergeivich, can it be so? 1966 it was, and the premier is dead already thirteen years. I explode into such rooms and, what, I see it a tape recorder machine rolling on round oak table, reel to reel. It is tape recordings of same, must be, of course, from buran, the "bug." But what is this, my Termen in tears he was, head buried in liver-spotted hands of him, dripping tear water. Saying: "I would need an army!" Now he is throwing up his arms, hitting head with fists. "I am this close, Mikhail. Mikhail, you must secure for me army."

"What for, such army, Lev Sergeivich? And how shall we going to arm them?"

"They shall move their arms through the ether, and men shall not die. If such quiver can destroy great bridge, Mikhail, so then quiver shall make dead man quick." He stare to ceiling, my Termen, as if God shall reside in coffers and crossbeams. Like a child with wishbone, he closing one's eyes and squeezing tight the viscera: "Olga, Olga, quick, quick, quick!" Then to me: "Critical volume is all one shall require. Men shall live again, Mikhail. Men shall shine. Olga shall shine."

"Like the sun shall men shine, Lev Sergeivich?" I am laughing. I apologize. When I am nervous, when I am nervous, so I laugh. My Termen I am afraid of he quivers and he quakes and his voice is like cry of eagle and like claw of eagle also including.

However, my Termen not answer, however sing to me schoolboy song it: "May the sun shining forever, may myself also shining forever . . ." In background is J.V. Stalin saying: "Bring us more this vodka. You are weak-kneed mediocrity. Shall you not drink with myself until one is blind?"


Backfire from truck is now setting off multiple car alarms, domino effect from Tompkins Square to Bowery. How this shall thrill me! Even more so, the girl, for it shall kindle such memory. "Is the trumpet of Gabriel, Mikhail," she say me. "Come a day, you shall know this joy also as myself." I cannot write, I cannot write, so my hand is arthritic and my mind is unclear. I cannot write, but I shall write, for love of this Termen and in faithful expectation of his final success.


We will speak of Afghanistan tragedy. Yes, of course, the Afghanistan adventure shall have been doomed from, how you may say, get-and-go. Ten years misery, what, thirteen thousand our people killed, how many more Afghanis, and in the end, withdrawal, humiliation. Our leaders ignored the geographical factor: one needed mountain goats, not men. And the ethnic factor, xenophobia, Islamic zealotry. And the Americans, of course. Nothing could have saved us, and already in 1986 the Politburo was planning how to get out. However, it was my Termen what he actually—I will make additional witticism—it was my Termen what he actually Termenated the operation.

Getting it?

The Nuzhins at such time are swarming around my Termen. "You must fabricate for us devices of military interest. What, shall we have invested such funds in you, and we shall have realized no issue from same? Must we to stop funding same, hm?"

In spite of self, I worried for him my Termen. "Lev Sergeivich, the instrumentation must be deployed. When the she-frog is full of eggs, it must squeeze them out . . ."

"I know," said my Termen, "or the he-frog shall never lay milt on them . . ."

"And in the spring we shall not be wiping peepers off our boot leather."

"God forbid! Don't worry. The new weapon is nearly ready."

"You have been saying this for eighteen months. Lev Sergeivich, I do worry. I confess, I have become a little fond of you."

"Against protocols, comrade? Fondness? How bourgeois."

"Nevertheless, I am fond of you. I feel a certain friendly regard."

"I also."

"Ah."

Thanks to God, under extreme pressure, shall my Termen deliver what he shall have ready to hand, in order to satisfy such Nuzhins. Situation in field is critical, such that my Termen his schematics are implemented and shipped out instanter. Also, he prevail upon me what I should arrange to be delivered additional crate to location in Afghanistan, NQA.

Here is above-mentioned documentation, lately made to public, post mortem of USSR, translated my own self Mikhail exactly, with assistance Ms. Miriam Webster . . .


CPSU CC POLITBURO TRANSCRIPT (excerpt) 13 January 1987

Top Secret

Only Copy

Working Draft

Meeting of CC CPSU Politburo

3 January 1987

Chaired by Comr. GORBACHEV, A.A.

Also present: Comr. Gromyko A.A., Shevardnadze Eh.A., Dobrynin A.F., Yeltsin B.N., et alia.

GORBACHEV: Let us share our views. I want to know what insight can the comrades offer concerning weaponry in defensive actions of 24 December 1986 in region in propinquity to Kabul? This weaponry is of our own manufacture. Is it a case of accidental malfunction?

DOBRYNIN: Total typical. It was not a case of accidental malfunction.

GORBACHEV: What is the comrade saying? Is the comrade eating pretzels at another's table?

DOBRYNIN: The comrade is at his own table. Such weaponry was developed under KGB, project transferred to auspices Leningrad Science Institute since one year. Responsibility for same is resting in one Termen L.S.

GORBACHEV: [Unclear.] What, Termen? Does the Deputy Minister of Defense verify this?

AKHROME'EV [USSR Deputy Minister of Defense]: The Deputy Minister of Defense takes no exception to Comrade Dobrynin's characterization.

DOBRYNIN: We are eating the same pretzel.

AKHROME'EV: The comrades shall be aware of the guerilla activities of 24 December southeast of Kabul approximately 20 km and northwest 10 or 15 km. Normally, the appearance of mujahadeen in said areas shall be adequately responded to by our troops. However, on this occasion, same are in receipt of new target distance calibration units, innovation due to Termen L.S., as the comrade has stated.

GORBACHEV: Said units, do they not respond to location or movement of intended ballistic target? What, does the horse suck eggs from a chicken's bottom? One has understood why the weaponry might not fire in the correct direction or at the proper angle; however, why has the weaponry not fired at all?

DOBYNIN: In unlucky times, comrade, even the rooster shall lay eggs.

AKHROME'EV: Indeed, the rooster has laid eggs, and the horse has sucked them. The units responded to enemy movements with the production of musical notes.

GORBACHEV: What, with musical notes?

AKHROME'EV: Forgive me, Comrade Chairman—the units also responded to the movements of our own troops.

GORBACHEV: [Unclear.]

AKHROME'EV: And our troops began to, they were inspired to, it evoked in them . . . please forgive me . . . they danced.

DOBRYNIN: Our soldiers danced, and the mujahadeen annihilated them with American bullets.

AKHROME'EV: Further, comrades, accompanying such crates of the weaponry was also extra crate provenance Leningrad Science Institute, with instructions to place same in propinquity of such troops on occasion of use of weaponry.

GORBACHEV: Contents of same?

AKHROME'EV: Contents dry ice and cadaver. [Unclear.] Cadaver of young woman, apparently.

GORBACHEV: [Unclear.] Termen [unclear] must be disciplined. What, shall we not have further information concerning such cadaver?

AKHROME'EV: Forgive me—it has disappeared.

GORBACHEV: What, shall one's cadaver have walked away? Blood and thunder, someone is paying for such prank.

DOBRYNIN: First eat the honey. Then lick your paws.

SCHEVARNADZE: When winter is over, the bear wakes, and the people shall go into hiding. Who has vodka?

YELTSIN: I have an excellent bottle and quite perfectly chilled.

GORBACHEV: Pass it here. It is time one withdrew from this Afghanistan.


At such period, post-Afghanistan, post-debacle, my Termen many times shall be in faraway reverie, so sad he is. "Lenin loved me, Mikhail."

"I know so, Lev Sergeivich. I have seen the documentation."

"I played Glinka for V.I. in his offices. He loved me this music. And then I held his arms and he waved his hands through the air over the ring and before the rod, himself, great Lenin, and I held him, I guided him, and he played the last measures of Glinka's Skylark."

"The Skylark. I know it well."

My Termen held it my hands like to Lenin's, and he moved them my hands, do, re, mi. Then fell arms of him. Then fell face of him. Saying: "Now I am in this reduced circumstances."

"Times change," I say him. "You should perhaps not have given the generals such schematics for a musical instrument in place of weaponry, Lev Sergeivich."

"Perhaps, perhaps—Mikhail, I need some additional resistors and some other components which I would prefer you not to write them down . . ."

"Lev Sergeivich, I beg you . . . You have been disciplined . . . I also . . ."

"I am close, Mikhail, close. A few have died, alas, but one lives—and soon all, all! Olga—tea, bring us tea, my girl." Again he sings: "May the sun shining forever, may myself also shining forever . . ."


In 1991 is my Termen once more finding way to New York City. Now is he of an advanced age, of course. I also approaching same. I have been disciplined by my KGB control. Total typical. Jig is up. One's superiors are glowering: "Shall we not pull the teeth of a biting ferret? You have withheld from us certain pertinent documentation, Mikhail, and you are to be severely curtailed." Too bad for them, I shall accompany my Termen to New York, and I shall defect to same before fat lady should sing—namely, firing squad. I shall not report to KGB since this juncture.

"Dear Lev Sergeivich," I say him during transatlantic flight, "concerning our friendship and certain records I may have kept over the years, I must make some confession . . ."

"No, no, no, Mikhail." He puts it his fingers to my lips. "You are my good friend. We shall not speak of this. You must assist me in certain project with regard to car alarms, and nothing else shall be of any importance. You likewise shall shine forever."

In factual, soon after arrival in New York City my Termen shall see series of wealthy investors what he knew in earlier days. We dine at certain chic restaurants on expense account of such persons. Termen is speaking good English to such gentlemen: "Have the arrangements been made for one's fabrication of car alarms? And the marketing of same is well in place? One must have many hundreds in close succession, night after night, and then, I promise you, shall come the longed-for consummation, gentlemen. Your honors' oscillations shall indeed be rectified. My own oscillation, likewise. Likewise Mikhail's." Laughing: "Yes, I promise you, this shall not be as Afghanistan." Also, such men shall be laughing with him. There is plentiful signing of financial instruments.

Too soon shall come 1993, May, month of flowers, when my Termen shall travel to Koninslijk Conservatory, the Hague, last concert of him. "May the sun shining forever, may myself also shining forever . . ."

One must not consider 'dead' as an end. I secured, as he shall wish, that my Termen's body should be readied in certain location on Island of Manhattan where the Vipers sing. Meanwhile, I am fabricating documentation of other, fictitious, arrangements. Then must I wait.

But hear, even at present instant, again they are wailing, regeneration of Vipers, ha ha—a joke, a witticism: I shall not be so always sad. In time shall such Vipers attain critical volume. Olga, more tea! Let us lean out of window that the music may fill us. Soon enough I shall die, and to me, at last, all the documentation be made known, what shall befall one's Nuzhins and what portion shall have the Termens.

And then, and then, it shall be for myself as it was with you, my girl. You rose from among one's blood-flowered comrades—like Venus, it was, from the sea, exception shipping crate for shell. Then how long and dangerous your walk to the Afghan border, trailing winding cloth, my dear! It draggled. It tattered. You draggled. You tattered. But your eyes were, as mine shall be, newly opened, and so you cared but little, isn't it?

All shall be beautiful, all, all. I fear nothing. A wonderful music shall pluck me back, the Vipers' song, back from the deep dark, into sunshine, and with me my Termen, alive again, that he may move my hands again, do, re, mi, as of old.


Eliot Fintushel is a writer and traveling showman. A Sturgeon and Nebula nominee, he has received two NEA Solo Performer Awards. His first novel, Breakfast With The Ones You Love, will be coming out from Bantam Spectra in the Fall of 2006. You should hear him play the theremin. For more on his work, see his website. To contact him, send him email at show@fintushel.com.