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From Russia, With Love

June 08, 1997|Chris Bray

As Mark Segal pads around his Fairfax district home, plugging in and getting tuned up, his cats stir in the next room. Then he starts to play, and one of them streaks through an open door. Segal runs through the national anthem and "Over the Rainbow," his hands sweeping around a small cabinet with a pair of metal antennae: a theremin.

If you've seen Hitchcock's "Spellbound" or the Z-movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still," you've heard a theremin. Ditto for the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," which combined theremin and cello on the song's signature refrain. Invented in 1920, the theremin produces its quavering, otherworldly sound when one's hands are manipulated in proximity to the metal rods: one for volume, one for pitch. Segal, 28, designed and built the theremin he plays this afternoon and, over the past couple of years, has sold dozens through his World Wide Web site.

Segal's involvement with the theremin began after he graduated from UC Irvine in 1992 with degrees in electrical engineering and Russian and realized he needed to get his hands on a paycheck. Stints as a stage lighting technician and retrofitting cars to run on electricity left him dissatisfied.

"If my heart's not in it, I won't continue," he says.

Then a friend showed him a theremin, an amateur model he describes as "a dinky little toy that made sounds." But those sounds captured Segal's attention. Soon after, he discovered the Theremin behind the theremin. Leon Theremin, a Russian inventor who moved to the U.S. in 1928, was the subject of the 1995 documentary "Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey." Just as Theremin was kidnapped at gunpoint by Stalin's secret police (in New York, no less) and hauled to a Soviet work camp, so was Segal's grandfather, a Russian Jew, killed by the Communists. (The Soviets listed Theremin as executed in 1945, but he actually died in Moscow, at age 97, in 1993.) Segal walked away from the screening somehow knowing he would build theremins.

Experimenting day and night, he found ways to increase the theremin's range and sensitivity and added a headphone jack. He now hand-builds two models--one housed in an elegant hardwood cabinet, the other built into a briefcase for travel--that sell for $925 and $550. Among Segal's customers is David Weiss, principal oboist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who also plays the saw in his spare time. "For the money, it's a good theremin," Weiss says.

For Segal, building and selling theremins is secondary to actually playing them, which he does whenever he can.

"When I play, it's really kind of an emotional thing," he says. "It has filled the part of my life that was missing."

Not to mention keeping the cats on their toes.

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