An Interview with Leon Theremin
Reprinted by permission of the author - Olivia
All material Copyright Olivia Mattis
Leon Theremin and Olivia Mattis
Olivia Mattis and Leon Theremin
in Bourges, France
16 June 1989
Conducted in France in 1989, when Leon
Theremin (Lev Sergeyevich Termen) first emerged from Russia after
51 years of state arrest.
present: Natalia Theremin and two young Russian men.
Interpreter: Patrick Lemoine
Text translated to english by: Nina Boguslawsky and Alejandro Tkaczevski
The interview was recorded by French film crew, Camera 16.
Mattis: Please tell me about
yourself: where you were born, about your family, and about your
scientific and musical training.
Theremin: I was born in Leningrad,
that was then called St. Petersburg, in 1896. My father was a lawyer,
and my mother was interested in the arts, especially music and drawing.
Even before high school I was interested in physics, in electricity
and in oscillatory motions like those of a pendulum. In high school
I was interested in physics, and after playing the piano I started
studying cello. While in high school I entered the conservatory
on the cello, and I graduated with the title of "free artist on
the violoncello." Then I entered the university, after graduating
from high school, and majored in physics and astronomy.
Mattis: When did you first
conceive of your instrument?
Theremin: The idea first came
to me right after our Revolution, at the beginning of the Bolshevik
state. I wanted to invent some kind of an instrument that would
not operate mechanically, as does the piano, or the cello and the
violin, whose bow movements can be compared to those of a saw. I
conceived of an instrument that would created sound without using
any mechanical energy, like the conductor of an orchestra. The orchestra
plays mechanically, using mechanical energy; the conductor just
moves his hands, and his movements have an effect on the music artistry
[of the orchestra].
Mattis: Why did you make this
Theremin: I became interested
in effectuating progress in music, so that there would be more [musical]
resources. I was not satisfied with the mechanical instruments in
existence, of which there were many. They were all built using elementary
principles and were not physically well done. I was interested in
making a different kind of instrument. And I wanted, of course,
to make an apparatus that would be controlled in space, exploiting
electrical fields, and that would use little energy. Therefore I
transformed electronic [equipment] into a musical instrument that
would provide greater resources.
Mattis: What did Lenin think
of it, and why did you show it to him?
Theremin: In the Soviet Union
at that time everyone was interested in new things, in particular
all the new uses of electricity: for agriculture, for mechanical
uses, for transport, for communication. And so then, at that time,
when everyone was interested in these fields, I decided to create
a musical use for electricity. I made a few first apparatuses that
were made [based on principles of] the human interference of radio
waves in space, at first used in [electronic] security systems,
then applied to musical purposes. I made it, and I showed it at
that time to the leaders. There was a big electronics conference
in Moscow, and I showed my instruments there. It made a big splash.
It was written up in the literature and the newspapers, of which
we had many at that time, and many doors were opened [for me then]
in the Soviet Union. And so Vladimir Il'yich Lenin, the leader of
our state, learned that I had shown an interested thing at this
conference, and he wanted to get acquainted with it himself. So
they asked me to come with my apparatus, with my musical instrument,
to his office, to show him. And I did so.
Mattis: What did Lenin think
Theremin: I brought my apparatus
and set it up in his large office in the Kremlin. He was not yet
there because he was in a meeting. I waited with Fotiva, his secretary,
who was a good pianist, a graduate of the conservatory. She said
that a little piano would be brought into the office, and that she
would accompany me on the music that I would play. So we prepared,
and about an hour and a half later Vladimir Il'yich Lenin came with
those people with whom he had been in conference in the Kremlin.
He was very gracious; I was very pleased to meet him, and then I
showed him the signaling system of my instrument, which I played
by moving my hands in the air, and which was called at that time
the thereminvox. I played a piece [of music]. After I played the
piece they applauded, including Vladimir Il'yich [Lenin], who had
been watching very attentively during my playing. I played Glinka's
"Skylark", which he loved very much, and Vladimir Il'yich said,
after all this applause, that I should show him, and he would try
himself to play it. He stood up, moved to the instrument, stretched
his hands out, left and right: right to the pitch and left to the
volume. I took his hands from behind and helped him. He started
to play "Skylark". He had a very good ear, and he felt where to
move his hands to get the sound: to lower them or to raise them.
In the middle of this piece I thought that he could himself, independently,
move his hands. So I took my hands off of his, and he completed
the whole thing independently, by himself, with great success and
with great applause following. He was very happy that he could play
on this instrument all by himself.
Mattis: Incredible! You spoke
to me yesterday about a polyphonic instrument; did it exist?
Theremin: Yes, I did make such
an instrument. a person could regulate one voice or at the same
time could add two or three more voices which would be in some sort
of correct intervallic, I mean chordal, relationship in some natural
pitch system. Well, I tried to make such an instrument, and indeed
it was convincing, because it plays a melody very precisely with
great accuracy, as opposed to when a choir executes [a melody],
in which each voice deviates up and down in pitch. Here this instrument
plays in an exact and natural way. I made such an instrument, and
it worked. It so happened that I showed it in my studio while I
was working at the university. This instrument was made for a demonstration
at the university.
Mattis: Does this instrument
Theremin: I had the instrument
in the university in a special place where I demonstrated it for
my lectures. But then the university was reorganized and rooms reassigned.
The instrument was left in a room for four years, where people could
come and gradually dismantle it. So now it is in a completely dismantled
and ruined condition at the university somewhere. After that I started
working on a new instrument. The old instrument was made using "radio
lamps" [vacuum tubes], but the new instrument I started making was
based on semiconductors. The project was going well; it was partially
completed when I had to clear out [of] the place where the instrument
was located because there were other projects going on that were
unrelated to music. The chairman of the physics department did not
consider music to be a science, and felt that this should not be
taking place at the university. And I had to vacate the room that
I was occupying at the university.
Mattis: In what year was this?
am afraid to say--in 1978. It was about 1978.
Mattis: What was the first musical
destination of your machine? Was the purpose of the instrument to
play the classical repertory, or did you share the preoccupation's
of the modern composers for new sounds and new usage's?
Theremin: When I made the first
instrument, with the first method of regulation, the character of
the sound it could create surpassed all the abilities of all the
instruments then in existence. So that's why I considered that composers
should write new music for this new timbre, and that in addition
to knowing traditional musical techniques, that they had to know
new ones. So, in this respect, I thought that there would be progress
in the world of instruments, as well as the world of composition.
Mattis: Then why at the first
concerts, on Clara Rockmore's recording, and on last night's concert
program [featuring Natalia Theremin] was classical music played
Theremin: That is because there
are so far no well-written compositions for the thereminvox. That's
why in the concert [last night] there were mostly compositions written
by good composers, or folksongs. There are some things written by
the [modern] composers, but they were not popular. I can't say that
they fully exploit the instrument. They were written to imitate
old instruments, such as the violin, the voice, etc. So the repertoire
that is used is mostly the repertoire written for other musical
Mattis: Now I would like to
ask you a few questions about the composer Edgard Varese.
Theremin: Some pieces by Edgard
Varese could have been played, but I don't now remember our acquaintance.
Sometimes we met, but I don't precisely remember. There were a lot
of composers. Sometimes we met, in different places, let's say in
the street or at concerts. There were many performances. Either
the composers would come to my concerts, or I would go to hear the
new compositions by the new composers. There we would meet. There
were many, many composers; I'm afraid to mention the names of the
Mattis: That's too bad, because
I have very precise questions about them!
Theremin: I'm afraid to say
anything about that.
Mattis: According to the memoirs
of Louise Varese, you met Varese in New York. What year might that
Theremin: I was in New York
for nine years [sic: should be eleven, 1927-38]. I might have met
him towards the beginning of my stay. I had concerts in New York
many times, and people came to the concerts. We had gatherings of
people who were interested in my work. Social get-togethers were
organized; about 30-40 people would attend. All sorts of interesting
composers and scientists, like Einstein, etc. would talk to me,
and I talked to many of them. I can't enumerate them. There were
some composers, but also some instrumentalists, violinists or cellists,
who would meet with me and who were interested in new music.
Mattis: In what year did you
arrive in New York?
Theremin: At the end of 1929,
beginning of the '30's: 31, 33 [sic: should be December 22, 1927].
Mattis: I thought that you came
to New York in 1927 or 1928.
Theremin: Yes, approximately
at the end of that time, at the end of 1929.
Mattis: Can you remember Edgard
Varese? How did he look physically? Can you remember?
Theremin: No, I couldn't tell
you. I met so many people. I did not see Varese much. I cannot remember
it. It was so long ago, decades ago. More than sixty years have
passed since that time; I don't remember. I remember many people,
according to photographs and letters. I met a lot of people. I remember
well a lot of my good students. I had a wonderful student Clara
Rockmore, and also Lucie Rosen. These were the better ones whom
I remember who worked in my studio. There was one man who was interested
in the color of music, the connection between light and music, and
that was Einstein. He asked-- He showed me that his wife played
piano very well; he could play violin, and he tried to play the
thereminvox. He asked me if he could use my studio; I had a big,
big house that I rented in New York, at 37 West 54th Street.
Mattis: What repertory did you
play with Einstein?
Theremin: Einstein, no Einstein
was more interested in the connection between music and geometrical
figures: not only color, but mostly triangles, hexagons, heptagons,
different kinds of geometrical figures. He wanted to combine these
into drawings. He asked whether he could have a laboratory in a
small room in my large house, where he could draw. So I gave him
a study, not very big. I found him a [woman] assistant, one of my
co-workers who was a painter, to help him draw these sketches, and
he would come and do his work. I saw him many times, very often.
It was not the field that I was interested in, these geometrical
figures. I can't say that from my point of view they [the figures]
had a psychological effect on the colors of the music. He was there
for a long time. All the walls were covered with these paintings,
with these drawings. There was not enough room, and he wanted more
room. So I found another big place. I got a room in my good friend's
house, an American. He had a very large house, and I referred him
to that house. He continued to work on these things there with my
assistant, the painter. I saw him often, and we talked. As for him
personally, Einstein was a physicist and theorist, but I was not
a theorist--I was an inventor--so we did not have that much in common.
I had much more kinship with someone like Vladimir Il'yich [Lenin],
who was interested in how the whole world is created. Einstein was
a theorist, so he knew all the formulas, etc. I cannot say that
I was very much interested in him as a physicist.
Mattis: Varese came to you to
ask you to build him an instrument for his piece Ecuatorial. Do
you remember anything about that?
Theremin: I don't remember
whether I had made an instrument for him. There was one man who
was very much interested in my instruments: it was the chief conductor
of the New York orchestra [sic: should be Philadelphia Orchestra],
[Leopold] Stokowski, who had ordered instruments especially for
the orchestra. I made ten instruments especially for Stokowski.
It was a musical [instrument]; they used it in concerts, and it
created a great impression. This was very interesting. As for Varese,
I don't remember anything. I don't remember his musical activities
Mattis: What works, which composers,
did Stokowski play with your instruments?
Theremin: I have programs of
the orchestra where he played different things. There were many
of them. Sometimes there were compositions written by new composers
and old composers for regular orchestra, and often the basses and
cellos would be replaced in the orchestra by thereminvoxes. The
bassists were interested in this, and in general there were many
musical experiments conducted on timbre. I'm not going to get into
this because it's very technical. With Stokowski I had a really
good opportunity to work and think about new music.
Patrick Lemoine (interpreter): Do you remember what composers they played?
Theremin: I don't remember.
I cannot remember now; I cannot tell you who the new composers were.
There were many fashionable composers at that time in America. Some
of them were alone-- Some of them made arrangements for orchestra.
[indistinct] Great interest was shown for my instrument and for
the new sound that could be used for the orchestra, and this [interest]
was [shown especially] by Stokowski: he was the main conductor of
a big symphony orchestra in New York. According to his order, five,
I mean ten, instruments, thereminvoxes, were specially made that
could produce stronger bass sounds. These instruments were made,
and some composers arranged existing symphonies in order to incorporate
this instrument; some parts of symphonies were arranged by American
composers at that time. I cannot tell you their last names, but
there were many young composers who were interested in this, and
who were interested in having their compositions that used the new
instruments be played by the New York orchestra.