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A journey to the moon, by a master of the theremin

This July is, of course, the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, the first time human beings landed on the moon. No small number of cultural artifacts piggybacked onto Apollo 11. But one bit of culture was, exceptionally, quite literally on board. Late in the evening of July 22, 1969, as the command module Columbia ferried the three astronauts back to earth, the audio link between the craft and Mission Control suddenly warbled with “Radar Blues,” from a 1947 album called “Music Out of the Moon,” composed by Harry Revel, conducted by Les Baxter, and featuring, as soloist, Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman on the theremin, that early electronic instrument with a haunting, otherworldly wail.

The Apollo 11 crew had requested songs to bring along on the voyage, dubbed onto cassette tapes by Mickey Kapp, a record producer friendly with many astronauts. Michael Collins was partial to Jonathan King’s moody, folk-rock “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon.” Buzz Aldrin preferred the likes of Glen Campbell and Barbra Streisand. “Music Out of the Moon” was Neil Armstrong's request — “an old favorite of mine,” he commented to Mission Control. The album’s lush easy-listening atmosphere, foreshadowing Baxter’s later career as an impresario of exotica music, was at odds with the others’ contemporary tastes. Charlie Duke, back on Earth, remarked wryly that “it sounded a little scratchy.” Michael Collins concurred: “It sounds a little scratchy to us, too,” he said, “but the czar likes it.”

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Hoffman’s journey to the moon was something of a random walk. A licensed and practicing podiatrist, he enjoyed moonlighting on the violin, leading small bands in New York City. Sometime in the 1930s, he acquired a theremin — either through acquaintance with Leon Theremin, the instrument’s inventor, or (according to one report) as settlement of an outstanding debt — and incorporated it into his performances. After moving to California, his musical activities waned, but he dutifully transferred his union membership to the Los Angeles local. In 1945, composer Miklos Rózsa, needing a theremin player for his score to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound,” called the only one listed on the union rolls: Hoffman. Hoffman and his theremin went on to make numerous appearances on Golden Age Hollywood soundtracks — the alcoholic haze of “The Lost Weekend,” the extraterrestrial frisson of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” the Angel of Death in “The Ten Commandments.”

“Music Out of the Moon” sold well enough that Hoffman made two more albums with Revel and Baxter. He worked steadily through the ’50s, becoming (as have so many thereminists) a sort of unofficial ambassador for the instrument. As the theremin drifted into cliché and counterculture, Hoffman followed: Among his final credits were the B-movie “Billy the Kid versus Dracula” and Captain Beefheart’s debut album. He died in 1967, missing out on his music’s unlikely lunar voyage.

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Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.