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An Interview with Leon Theremin

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.

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