oddmusic: the theremin

oddmusic.com presents...

An Interview with Leon Theremin
Reprinted by permission of the author - Olivia Mattis
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.

Also 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 instrument?

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 of it?

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 still exist?

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?

Theremin: Approximately--I 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 almost exclusively?

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 instruments.

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 composers.

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 have been?

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 at all.

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.

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