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An Interview with Leon Theremin

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 you knew.

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 Slonimsky?

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 Stokowski.

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?

Theremin: No.

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 Schillinger?

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 all.

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.

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