An Interview with Leon Theremin
by Olivia Mattis
October 04, 2002
is a musicologist, a Varèse scholar whose enthusiastic research and study of electronic music is extensive; she was also the first to conduct an interview with Léon Theremin when he came out of Soviet seclusion in 1989.
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.
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 this letter?
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.
i have been studying the theremin and Leon Theremen for a long time, but this inteveiw gets really in depth. this is a Brilliant interveiw
Kewl! i am going to be reserching on him later on!