An Interview with Leon Theremin (Continued) Part 2
Mattis: When Varese returned
from New Mexico he tried in vain to contact you. He wrote you two
letters, of which I have one here, dated 1941. [Presents letter.]
Do you remember this letter; did you ever receive it?
Theremin: In 1941 I was already
in a government institution where I could not write letters abroad,
so I didn't receive this letter in 1941.
Mattis: So you have never seen
Theremin: I am afraid to say
I don't know, because I don't have it now, and it might be that
I have never seen it. [Reads letter.] At that time I was in a special
place, so I had no opportunity to receive letters. I could receive
them only after 1946.
Mattis: Can you tell us who
is this man Mr. Fediushine [mentioned in the letter]?
Theremin: I don't know. I can't
remember. I don't have any literature on that.
Mattis: The American composer
Wallingford Riegger is reputed to have played your electronic cello;
do you remember this?
Theremin: There were many composers,
and I showed it to many composers, but I don't remember the names.
I don't remember. Maybe he was my student; I don't remember this.
There were many people in my studio; they were all studying. I had
a 99-year lease: I rented a big house in New York at 37 West 54th
Street, a six-story house. My studio was there. Many students came
there, and composers came to the place. I don't remember the names,
but they were interested in the instruments. I showed them the instruments
and gave them opportunities to play it, and so on, and so on. Everything
took place during a nine-year [sic: should be eleven-year] period.
I didn't write down the names: only the most world-famous ones.
I have notes about them, Einstein among them, and composers-- [Joseph]
Szigeti visited me; Szigeti, the famous violinist, was also there.
Mattis: I would like to mention
some other names, and elicit any thoughts you have about these people
Theremin: I can prepare for
next time, but I cannot answer you off the cuff. I can't remember
them now. There were too many people, too many different composers.
Sometimes I remember the composer's name, but I don't remember if
he was at my place or not. I want to say that at that time I was
mostly interested in questions of electronic music and timbre. There
were many new questions at that time, so I was not so much interested
in people and composers. They only impressed me after having learned
the old science.
Mattis: Do you remember Nicolas
Theremin: Maybe. I don't remember.
It's a familiar name to me--I might even know him--but I don't remember.
Mattis: How about Henry Cowell?
Theremin: I recognize all these
names. No, I am afraid I don't remember very much about him. Stokowski
I remember very well, because I made instruments for him. As for
the rest, maybe we talked casually. The composers knew very little
about acoustics, so I did not talk to them much.
Mattis: Please tell me about
Theremin: About Stokowski I
can say, yes, I remember him. He was of course a great conductor.
He was very interested in technical resources, of course: not in
the electronics specifically, but in what new sounds, what new timbres,
what new characters of sound could be obtained. So of course I can
tell you all the theory I know, but this may not be relevant now.
I have some notes about this theory of new timbres and about musical
acoustics. I delivered lectures at the university. There are many
things that composers know very little about. I was not very interested
in them, because they were going in a different direction [indistinct]
in relation to new musical resources. This was as much [in the realm
of] melodic construction as of timbre and the use of chords. This
was all worked out by me based on the new musical resources.
Mattis: In Paris did you ever
meet George Antheil?
Theremin: I don't remember.
Lemoine: What other composers
did you meet in New York?
Theremin: I'm afraid to say.
It's very hard for me to say.
Mattis: Now I would like to
ask you about the artistic world. Did you know the Futurists?
Mattis: Neither the Italians
nor the Russians?
Theremin: No. No. There were
a lot of different people with whom I had to talk. There were a
lot of societies that would invite me, where I would answer questions,
but I don't remember. You can imagine. For example, now we are having
a meeting, and we are talking now. You are asking me questions,
and I am answering. And I don't know your names. I don't know to
whom I am speaking. There were many such interviews, and then you
ask, "Who was there?" I'm meeting a lot of people in these three
or four days that I'm here [in Bourges], and I'm not writing down
their names. I don't remember who they are or what their names are:
"He's a director, or he is an assistant, what's his name?" Even
now, I don't know [either of your names]. And, of course, in America
I was not as accurate in recording people's names. If it was a very
famous person I may have remembered him, and might remember him
now. There were a lot of good people who were praised, but who also
had enemies who would say derogatory things about them, who did
not agree with them, who would say, "He's an awful composer." Some
said one [fellow] was a good composer, and others said he was an
awful composer. So there were all different kinds of people. I was
very interested, and I talked to them. There were many things I
talked about with them, and from those conversations I thought I
should find new ways of thinking, so that composers would not [have
to] use the old viewpoints that had been used in art.
Mattis: Do you remember Joseph
Theremin: Schillinger, yes,
I knew him. I had many conversations with him, but I cannot say
anything about his work. I recognize his name; he was famous, after
Mattis: You worked together,
and you wrote a composition together [First Airphonic Suite for
RCA Theremin and Orchestra, 1929].
Theremin: Yeah, he was a composer,
but from my point of view he was one of many interesting, good people
who were interested in old-fashioned ideas and viewpoints that were
not suitable for the development of musical art.
Mattis: I would like to ask
you about your life in New York. Could you speak first in general
terms about your life in New York?
Theremin: Yes, of course. Do
you want it now? Do you want my story now?
Lemoine: Yes. When you were in New York, how did you live, where did you
live, and what were you doing in New York in general?
Theremin: You have to tell
me what you want to know because I can tell you about my musical
and theoretical side or my personal life. My personal life has to
do with my personal pleasures: with my friends, some little things
with family affairs. So if you want to talk about family affairs,
we can talk about the people that were close to me, and so on, or
I can tell you about my work and the people who shared it with me.
Mattis: I'm interested in both
aspects of your life, absolutely.
Theremin: First my personal
life. It was known, as everything else was known. In my personal
life I was interested very much in different physicists. At the
same time, I was very interested in the people who were very close
to me. I was quite close to my parents, to my sister, and so on.
Also, I could love people whom I liked. I fell in love for the first
time (of course, not in New York) with a girl whom I really liked
when I was three years old. That was my first love.
Lemoine: We want to know about
your life in New York.
Theremin: I can tell you many
things that occurred that may have significance, etc. I can tell
you all the things that strongly influenced my musical life. I can
tell you all kinds of things, but they may sound random. I can tell
them quickly. I won't tell you about the love that happened when
I was three years old, but I can tell you about my first marriage.
Lemoine: Where was this, in
Theremin: I'll tell you all
about it, in New York and everything.
Mattis: Please tell me about
Theremin: I was born in 1896,
so it was in 1921 for the first time. I had a colleague, Constantinov,
who had a very attractive sister. And so she became my wife, and
we got married when I was working in Leningrad at the Ioffe Institute
for Physics and Technology. She was very attractive. We were in
Russia. She had general interests, not music. She was much younger
than I was. This was in 1921. I was already 26 [sic] years old at
that time, and she was probably 20 or a little more than 19. Katia
Constantinova. After that I had a lot of work, very interesting
work. I had a lab. I was the inventor of this instrument, the first
instrument. She was not interested in music much. I was the first
in the world to invent a television device; this was in 1926. Then
I was sent abroad. I was sent to the international conference in
Frankfurt-am-Maine. I went alone, and she was left behind. She joined
me in Paris, where I went next, and we stayed with my relatives.
After that I went to America, and she joined me there. So I was
with Katia. It was a difficult time. We had a lot of work to do.
We did not have children, on principle. It's not that we didn't
want them, but we decided that because of the circumstances we did
not want to have children while traveling. So we came to New York.
She was in New York with me. She was interested in medicine. She
wanted to enter the institute, the medical institute, which was
about 60 km. from New York, or maybe less, 35 km. So she entered
this medical school, and she slept there [in the dormitory], and
visited me once or twice a week in New York. We had a very good
relationship, but she was interested, not in music, but in medicine.
I was also interested in medicine, but not in the same way as her.
After a while--
Mattis: Did you have any children
with this woman?
Theremin: No. We didn't want
children on principle. Then I'll tell you what happened afterwards.
After that, it happened that she would visit me once a week. One
fine day, a young man came to me, and he said, "You know" (he gave
me his calling card), "I have a request to make of you and of your
wife, too. We love each other. Please let us marry each other."
This was not quite pleasant for me, but I said, "Of course, I cannot
forbid-- Well, in the Soviet Union we have freedom [divorce is legal]."
But I told him that things could not happen in this way. So he left,
and I felt terrible. I tried to reach my wife, but the phones weren't
working well. After a while, maybe three days later, I received
from my Embassy--because at that time I was working under the leadership
of our Consulate--they sent me a magazine that was published by
German representatives of a fascist organization in America. This
fascist organization wrote that Theremin-- In this article it was
written that "the wife of Theremin is sympathetic to our work, and
we accepted her into our society, but Theremin doesn't want to pay
money, because he is probably a Jew, and he is afraid to give money.
That's why he won't become a member of our society." Well, there
was such a magazine. At the Embassy, the people said, "We cannot
allow this." Then in a few days, they said something more definite.
The Embassy called me, and demanded that I get a divorce from her.
They called me and gave me my first divorce without her [presence
or consent]. I talked to her on the telephone about it. She said,
"It's my friends, but I was never a member of any such society,"
and that's it. This was my first divorce. She continued to live
there; she continued to study at that institute. I would talk to
her sometimes, but I didn't believe her. So this was my first divorce.
Of course, at the same time, I continued constructing musical instruments,
and this too preoccupied my mind. Composers would come by and ask
about my wife. So I told you a little bit. Then there's more to
Mattis: Are you Jewish?
Mattis: Do you have anything
more to add about your personal life in New York?
Theremin: There are many interesting
things connected with my work, with the composers I had to see.
But anyway, I was lonely. I sometimes called my wife on the telephone,
but I couldn't--I couldn't get her attention. Well, we didn't really
argue, but I felt lonely that I had no wife. So, I had my studio,
where I was conducting many studies on a new instrument which I
invented, an instrument for dancing. The instrument for dancing
was called the "Terpsitone." It was in my studio, this instrument.
It's important to talk about this instrument, because it required
a great deal of work. It's a dancing musical instrument--much like
a thereminvox, but for dancing. There I had a very beautiful student,
a black woman. She danced well. And it happened that we liked each
other very much. When I mentioned in my Consulate that I liked a
black woman, they said, "O.K., marry her." So we went to the Consulate,
where we were married, and this was my marriage #1 [sic] to the
black woman. Her name was Lavinia Williams. She lived with me, etc.
She participated in some dancing works, about which I should talk
because I had done much work on the dancing musical instrument.
So, when I left America (we did not have children either)--I had
to leave America--she was to be sent in a few weeks. I went on a
special-- Well, so she stayed in America.
Mattis: Do you know what happened
to her afterwards?
Theremin: She stayed there.
We wrote to each other for a while, but now I don't know.
Natalia Theremin: She got married,
and has two daughters who were ballerinas and performed in a major
New York theater--I don't know its name.
Theremin: She married another
man. Not immediately. Six years after I left.
Reprinted by permission of the author - Olivia