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Theremin Cello is back. An interview with Olivia Mattis

An interview with musicologist Olivia Mattis about the return of the Theremin Cello.

Theremin Cello is back

In his continual quest for instruments for his “organized sound,” Edgard Varèse experimented with different kinds of musical and non-musical devices. Since he believed in a strict collaboration between composers and scientists, he also approached various scientists and inventors like Luigi Russolo (see the letter Varèse wrote to Russolo) and Léon Theremin.

Under Varèse’s specifications, Theremin built two fingerboard theremins with an extremely high range that were to be used in Ecuatorial, a composition inspired by the Popol Vuh (the sacred book of the Maya) that Varèse wrote in the early ’30s for two fingerboard theremins, four trumpets, four trombones, piano, organ, percussion and bass singer.

Conducted by Nicolas Slonimsky, Ecuatorial was premiered at New York’s Town Hall in 1934. Then Varèse left New York and moved to Santa Fe, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. When Varèse returned to New York in 1938, Leon Theremin was gone. In 1941 Varèse, in the hope to resume his collaboration with Theremin, wrote him a letter. Still, the inventor wasn’t able to read it until 1989, when musicologist Olivia Mattis, during an interview with Theremin (first emerged from Russia after 51 years), presented a copy of it.

In the 60s, when Varèse published the score of his composition, he reassigned the theremin parts to two ondes martenot.

On Tuesday, October 15, 2002, after almost 70 years from the premiere, Ecuatorial will be performed again with its intended instrumentation for two theremin cellos, baritone voice and orchestra (see press release). We have asked Olivia Mattis, one of the devisers of the event, to tell us something about it.

Saggini: It’s an epochal event, at least for us theremin enthusiasts. Can you tell us how it all started?

Mattis: This has been a dream of mine since I first interviewed Leon Theremin in Bourges in 1989 and handed him the letter that Varese had written him in 1941 (but that he saw for the first time that day–48 years late!).

Albert Glinsky, in the course of his research for his theremin biography, came across a non-working theremin cello in a private collection. He presented this instrument to the public in an exhibit at the Erie Art Museum in 2000 as part of a mini theremin festival.

Floyd Engels (and I and Bob Moog and Lydia Kavina and lots of other people) saw the theremin cello in Albert’s exhibit. We all knew that if this instrument was going to sing again that Floyd Engels would have to make a modern replica. He was clearly the right person to do it, after the superb reconstruction he did of Clara Rockmore’s diamond-shaped speaker.

The problem was that the instrument was in non-working order, and was missing a number of internal parts. Nevertheless, Floyd was able (with the help of his son John as well as Bob Moog) to figure out what was missing, and miraculously he was able to make a new instrument that worked!

Floyd submitted his instrument to a contest of the Antique Wireless Association in 2001, and it won the first prize and the Blue Ribbon.

So, when Prof. David Felder told me that the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo was planning to present Ecuatorial in the upcoming concert season and asked me to give a pre-concert lecture and write the program notes, I immediately suggested that Floyd Engels’ new instruments should be used.

But there were two problems with the Engels instruments: the range was not wide enough for the Varese piece, and there was an articulation problem causing a thumping sound at the attack of every note, like a glottal stop.

When I then spoke with cellist Jonathan Golove, who was one of the intended performers on the instrument along with his wife Mary Artmann,he thought that those two problems could be easily solved. So Jonathan and Mary and I drove down to Floyd Engels’ house (about 45 minutes south of Buffalo), and they tried out the instrument. They determined that with a simple attachment to a range-extending computer program that they could augment the range by two octaves, which was all that was necessary. As for the thumping sound, they found that they were able to control it by means of the volume and articulation lever. So it was decided that the instruments could be used after all. Albert Glinsky graciously offered to lend his Engels theremin cello for the occasion in addition to the one still in Floyd’s possession (Floyd had made four instruments and is now making six more). Then Floyd and I decided to lend our diamond-shaped speakers to the concert as well, so the visual effect will be very dramatic.

Saggini: After this experience, do you think it is now possible to establish if Varèse had to rewrite the part for theremin cello or if he simply relabelled it when he was forced to replace the theremin cello with the ondes martenot?

Mattis: Varese did rewrite the piece shortly after its premiere, but I don’t know what the changes were.

Saggini: So he rewrote the part in 1934, not in the 60’s. Does this mean that the reason for the changes was not the lack of cellos?

Mattis: The work’s premiere was a disaster, so possibly the changes had to do with adjustments in balance, range, register, etc. He said that he rewrote the PIECE–not necessarily that specific part.

Saggini: Do you believe that the particular tone of the theremin cello was important to Varèse or do you think that the most important requirement for him was to use extremely high notes? The Ecuatorial performance by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailly (Varèse – The Complete Works. Decca), for which an ondes martenot hasn’t been used either, could lead to incline towards the second hypothesis, what do you think?

Mattis: We don’t know what the theremin cello sounded like!!!!!!!

Saggini: Does this mean that Engel’s cello is not an exact replica of the original?

Mattis: As I mentioned, the original was missing a number of internal parts. So Floyd’s instrument is a reconstruction that includes educated guesswork as to what the original should have looked like.

Saggini: Nowadays composers have plenty of electronic devices at their disposal, do you think that the theremin cello is by now obsolete and, consequently, the rebuilding of the theremin cello accomplished by Floyd Engels has only an historical meaning?

Mattis: I think that this instrument can now be used and should be used by modern composers. It’s fabulous!

Saggini: Why? What are the particular features that could be attractive for modern composers?

Mattis: For a composer who is only concerned with putting music on CD or DVD or the internet it’s maybe not so interesting. But if the composer wants to write for live performance–then WOW, this is a dramatic and stunning instrument. Just look at the illustrations in Albert Glinsky’s book, and you’ll see what I mean. The instrument that Floyd Engels has recreated looks very much like the one which is pictured with Leon Theremin himself playing it. Don’t forget that Theremin was a cellist, so this is a version of the instrument that he created first of all for his own use.

Saggini: Can we hope that Mode Records will publish a CD (or, better, a DVD) of this performance?

Mattis: The performance itself will not be recorded by Mode, but there will be a recording session of the piece at a later date.

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