Why do you like to play theremin

Interview with thereminist Lydia Kavina

from editorial staff,

When Lew Thermen (French: Theremin; 1896 - 1993) presented his "Aetherophon" - from the Greek "aether / air", "phone / voice" - to the public at the Soviet Electrical Congress of 1920, a certain Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, clairaudient.

The father of all October revolutions sent the ingenious inventor to the West to demonstrate the technical superiority of socialism by means of his invention. In the USA, Thermen further developed his instrument and had it built in series. In late 1966, the Beach Boys used a keyboard version of their hit "Good Vibrations". Brian Wilson, the creative head of the Californian beach boys, was not the first western musician to be fascinated by the sound potential of the theremin.

The newcomer Edgar Varèse (1883 - 1965) had already experimented with two “fingerboard” thermins for his composition “Ecutorial” in 1934; and the Hollywood composer Miklós Rozsa used the device that sounds like a singing saw to the untrained ears in the Hitchcock thriller "Spellbound" (German title: "I fight for you") in 1945. A younger sound artist who gave the theremin an effective cinematic appearance was Jack Nitzsche, who often spooked the final sequence of the Milos Forman film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975, with Jack Nicholson), which was also Oscar-winning for his music seemingly floating sounds.

Theremin sound sample

Like Nitzsche, the majority of players still use the easy-to-use fingerboard theremin to this day. The original instrument, however, plays differently and - if you trust the deceptive appearance in this case - almost by itself.

The principle of operation

Two high-frequency generators equipped with antennas create a field of tension within which the player creates alternating tension conditions by moving his hand; the resulting pitches and volume levels are made audible through loudspeakers. However, as Lydia Kavina knows, it takes some practice to hit the right note. In the mid-nineties she was brought to Hamburg by the US songwriter Tom Waits, who has always been a hunter and collector of obscure sound producers, for a joint musical production with the theater maker Robert Wilson. There she met the Cologne trombonist Achim Fink, who in the spring of 1998 was the musical director of the Cologne production of the Waits / Wilson work “The Black Rider” and brought Kavina into his ensemble.

In the Rhenish cathedral city, we talked to the virtuoso between rehearsals and performances and obtained first-hand information about the dinosaur among the electronic sound generators. But that's not all, Lydia Kavina has put together some representative and particularly expressive theremin sounds in a 4-track recording.

When and where did your first encounter with the theremin take place?

When I was nine years old, Lew Thermen came up to me on my own initiative to give me lessons. He brought me a little theremin first, and I figured out how to use it pretty quickly. I didn't know then that I was dealing with a highly unusual instrument. I got the coordination out quickly; However, learning the correct playing technique took many years. For several years I was given a lesson once a week that was more playful than strict lesson. He brought cake or sweets, visited the family, and introduced me to the art of playing theremin. He spoke softly and always with a sense of humor, so that one was never exposed to any pressure.

Where can you take theremin play lessons today?

There is a group in Moscow led by an engineer named Lev Koralov; there you can get an apprenticeship. I give master classes myself, sometimes a week in England or sometimes in the USA. I have summarized my experience in an instructional video produced by Bob Moog. On this video I show you step by step how to learn the theremin. It is important that when you are learning an instrument you can watch someone who has already mastered the instrument. You can watch guitarists on television every day, for example, but you can hardly ever see a theremin player. There is a company here in Germany, Touched By Sound in Nuremberg, that sells Theremine with the instructional video. Rudi Linhard from this company works with Bob Moog and has meanwhile also developed a MIDI-compatible theremin.

Are there quality differences between instruments from different manufacturers, and what are they?

Oh yes, there are definitely differences. Tuning stability is an important criterion. Often times the generators on this instrument are not stable; this means that when it comes to pitch, you have to re-evaluate the distance over and over again. There are also differences in the tonal range, i.e. whether a Theremin offers two, four or even six octaves, and also in the sensitivity of the volume - whether it is only roughly "on - off" or can capture a large number of dynamic positions. The instruments built by Moog are very stable, whereas some kit instruments are not as stable.

Can you give our readers some gaming tips?

Yes gladly. For example, the exact intonation: to do this, you bring your hand into the position where you expect the desired tone from experience, but only allow a low volume with the "volume hand" so that you then correct the exact pitch and only then increase the volume . Incidentally, this finger technique was developed by Clara Rockmore, who was an excellent violinist before she had to give up playing the violin due to a physical problem and transferred all of her musicality and expression to the theremin. She played the theremin like a violin and even took over the repertoire. The distance between two semitones is very small. A small movement of the hand is enough, you don't have to move your whole arm. The fingers are much more flexible and can dose more finely.


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Do you actually also play an acoustic instrument?

Yes, I play the piano; I studied composition at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow. But I only play concerts on the Theremin.

Are you planning to make recordings with the theremin?

I've already recorded two CDs that will come out this year. A production was recorded in America and contains works written for the theremin. This CD shows a range from the acoustic duo of theremin and piano to theremin with string quartet and theremin with voice to theremin with electronics and even a theremin quartet. There are compositions from 1929 to the present day. I made the second CD in Germany with Matthias Sauer, who is a theremin expert. In this production we tried to capture the whole variety of sound possibilities of the theremin, also in different musical styles - orchestra, jazz, pop, heavy metal and of course classical music, for example with the harp. There are a large number of short examples that are intended to provide suggestions for using the theremin everywhere.

Was it difficult to get four good theremin players together for the quartet?

It really wasn't that easy. We didn't make it until the Theremin Summer Institute in Portland, Maine, in the end. There came 25 participants, and we formed several ensembles - once even with 13 theremins! It wasn't an easy task, because after all, you always struggle with intonation.

Do you mainly work in the field of contemporary music?

I've worked in many different fields - in pop, jazz, experimental jazz, with Tom Waits ’" Black Rider ", also in classical music, in film and in the theater. What I haven't tried yet is to play with folk instruments, for example with a balalaika. But I've already played together with a didgeridoo.

You know for sure that the Beach Boys used a theremin on their hit "Good Vibrations".

But that wasn't actually a real theremin. It happened that the Beach Boys didn't master the theremin well enough and turned to [Bob] Moog, who then built them a special construction with a kind of tactile strip that was easier to control. It was the same tone generator, but no antenna control.

On which recordings has a real theremin been used, and which of these recordings do you like?

In addition to Clara Rockmore's CD, which contains classical works, there are recordings from the 1940s and 1950s by Samuel Hoffmann, who played popular pieces on the theremin at the time. He was also a student of thermal baths; he did a lot of film music and was well known at the time. He has for the most part recorded sweet lyric pieces; some recordings are even polyphonic.

What are the works that you personally prefer to play at the moment?

From [Camille] Saint-Saens I love to play the “swan” and the “elephant” [from “Carnival of the Animals”]. The "swan" has been played by all theremin players; Incidentally, it was also Lew Thermen's favorite piece. Originally it was written for cello, but it is also ideal for the theremin. Then there is a piece called “Mixolydia” that the Brazilian composer Jorge Antones wrote for me.

You're a world traveler when it comes to theremin. What's next on your calendar?

After concerts in Wuppertal and Augsburg and two big concerts in Italy, which are also recorded, the next annual workshop in Asheville, North Carolina, organized by Bob Moog.

Lydia Kavina on LP / CD Adrian Mercator - "Beyond the mirrors" Prudence 398.6516.2,

1996 "Ed Wood" original soundtrack recording. Hollywood Records HR-62002-2,

1994 "Music for films" - various. Opal Records (4/2 / 1-25755),

1988 The Radio Science Orchestra- "Memories of the Future", 1996 "SERVIsound - Meditatio in Variatione" (1995), CD1.1495-3 "The feathered snake"

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