A true poem then must be a strange device—at once a philosophical tool and a musical instrument. Such a device may be easier to manufacture in periods of social revolution, when objects as well as people move from their assigned places. On the eve of the Russian Revolution, the poet Khlebnikov fashioned new word-objects out of the shards of the old order. As the art historian Charlotte Douglas has written: “Khlebnikov seems to have heard within himself not just one voice but hundreds, and was able to make out beneath their clamor the pure sounds of language forming themselves into patterns, resonating with the ‘sounding string of humanity.’ Khlebnikov was searching for the voice of Time itself, sounding in language” (in a volume of Khlebnikov’s selected writings translated by Paul Schmidt, The King of Time [Harvard University Press, 1985]).
Likewise, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, an engineer named Leon Theremin, working at a physics institute in St. Petersburg, invented a device that was at once a scientific tool and a musical instrument. Theremin had been using radio waves to measure the motion of gases in a laboratory apparatus, and noticed that the audio signal emitted by the apparatus also responded to the motion of his own hands. He called in his supervisor, the eminent physicist A. F. Ioffe, who, after listening to the eerily wavering tones, exclaimed, “It’s the lament of an electronic Orpheus!” (The story is recounted in Gleb Anfilov, Physics and Music [Moscow: Mir Publishers, 1966].) Inasmuch as Lenin had defined communism as “the soviets plus electrification,” the new instrument seemed to exemplify the communistic electrification of musical sound. Theremin’s “etherphone,” as it was initially dubbed, could not be compared to any bourgeois musical instrument: instead, it drew its notes from the fiery circuits of a radically new mode of production.
The theremin can be described as a box of oscillators with a vertical antenna attached to one side and a horizontal antenna to the other. The performer’s hand movements around the antennas produces a monotonic variation of pitch and volume. Theremin’s device—which, like Frankenstein’s monster, came to be called by the name of its creator—to this day remains the only musical instrument played without touch. Whereas the playing of all other instruments involves the human manipulation of a solid object, playing the theremin requires, in effect, the plucking of invisible, impalpable strings. This lyre of the Russian Revolution is strung with immaterial lines of force; the worker’s hands must fashion music out of the ether.
Here is the monochord of a non-hierarchical universe, whose center is everywhere and nowhere. Within the hum of the Earth, there is the hum of something unearthly: the sound of the theremin. And here I will make a confession: this ethereal sound seems always to have dwelled within me, even before I could recognize its source(lessness). I can imagine writing the following sentence: “I became a poet in order to realize this sound in words.”