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His Other Voices. An Interview with Peter Pringle

Saggini: Please tell us about your seven years long study of the theremin, how you devised and elaborated your theremin technique and how much you derived from other players techniques.

Pringle: When I began studying the theremin, I had no method to follow and no teacher. Like most budding thereminists, I just did what felt right. This turned out to be a mistake. Ever since the theremin was invented, people have thought that it must be easy because nothing is touched. You are completely free, so there are no rules and no constraints. It is true, you may be free of strings, keys and wooden boxes but you are not free of the limitations of your own human body. In a way, with the theremin, “the

instrument” is not the box with the two antennas. THE INSTRUMENT IS THE THEREMINIST. The limit to what you can do will depend on what sort of music you wish to play and whether you wish to be a “precision thereminst”.

By “precision thereminist”, I mean someone who can accurately and precisely articulate melodies on the theremin. Musicians who play experimental music, free music, avant garde, etc. or who use the instrument as an effects device, do not necessarily require the same control or discipline. It is like the difference between a painter who paints portraits, and an artist who creates his works by throwing paint at the canvas. Both are valid but they are quite different.

In 1997, The First International Theremin Festival was held in Portland, Maine, in the U.S.A. I attended this event and had the only theremin lesson I have ever had in my life. Everyone who participated in the event got to have one lesson with Russian thereminist, Lydia Kavina. Like all the men at the festival, I fell madly in love with Lydia! She was warm, intelligent, beautiful and had a wonderful sense of humor. I carefully set up my theremin in the little studio Lydia had been given for her students, and I played for her. When I finished, she told me quite bluntly that if I continued playing the way I was playing, I was not going to be able to progress any further.

You must understand that the theremin cannot be played melodically without vibrato. It is the technique of vibrato that gives the thereminist the leeway to find the note in the air and “shape” it or “form” it into a musical experience for the listener while rendering pitch inconsistencies inaudible. Lydia Kavina pointed out that the technique I was using for producing vibrato was basically a back and forth “wiggling” or “shaking” motion of the wrist which is impossible to control. Vibrato on the theremin must be produced by a controlled motion of the entire forearm. Basically, Lydia told me I had to change my entire approach to the instrument.

She was absolutely right.

When I returned home from the festival, I managed to get a pirated copy of Clara Rockmore’s CAMERA 3 television special. This program has since been commercially re-issued as CLARA ROCKMORE, THE GREATEST THEREMIN VIRTUOSA and can be purchased from Moog Music. Anyway, I began to carefully study the Rockmore theremin technique which is called “aerial fingering”. This method has many advantages over other approaches to the instrument and I have found that it offers maximum control with minimum effort.

It’s not that I wanted to play like Clara Rockmore but I wanted to possess her control, her stamina and her ease with the instrument. I’m still working on it.

Cover of Peter Pringle's "Many Voices" CD.
Cover of Peter Pringle’s “Many Voices” CD.

Saggini: Please tell us about your seven years long study of the theremin, how you devised and elaborated your theremin technique and how much you derived from other players techniques.

Pringle: When I began studying the theremin, I had no method to follow and no teacher. Like most budding thereminists, I just did what felt right. This turned out to be a mistake. Ever since the theremin was invented, people have thought that it must be easy because nothing is touched. You are completely free, so there are no rules and no constraints. It is true, you may be free of strings, keys and wooden boxes but you are not free of the limitations of your own human body. In a way, with the theremin, “the instrument” is not the box with the two antennas. THE INSTRUMENT IS THE THEREMINIST. The limit to what you can do will depend on what sort of music you wish to play and whether you wish to be a “precision thereminst”.

By “precision thereminist”, I mean someone who can accurately and precisely articulate melodies on the theremin. Musicians who play experimental music, free music, avant garde, etc. or who use the instrument as an effects device, do not necessarily require the same control or discipline. It is like the difference between a painter who paints portraits, and an artist who creates his works by throwing paint at the canvas. Both are valid but they are quite different.

In 1997, The First International Theremin Festival was held in Portland, Maine, in the U.S.A. I attended this event and had the only theremin lesson I have ever had in my life. Everyone who participated in the event got to have one lesson with Russian thereminist, Lydia Kavina. Like all the men at the festival, I fell madly in love with Lydia! She was warm, intelligent, beautiful and had a wonderful sense of humor. I carefully set up my theremin in the little studio Lydia had been given for her students, and I played for her. When I finished, she told me quite bluntly that if I continued playing the way I was playing, I was not going to be able to progress any further.

You must understand that the theremin cannot be played melodically without vibrato. It is the technique of vibrato that gives the thereminist the leeway to find the note in the air and “shape” it or “form” it into a musical experience for the listener while rendering pitch inconsistencies inaudible. Lydia Kavina pointed out that the technique I was using for producing vibrato was basically a back and forth “wiggling” or “shaking” motion of the wrist which is impossible to control. Vibrato on the theremin must be produced by a controlled motion of the entire forearm. Basically, Lydia told me I had to change my entire approach to the instrument.

She was absolutely right.

When I returned home from the festival, I managed to get a pirated copy of Clara Rockmore’s CAMERA 3 television special. This program has since been commercially re-issued as CLARA ROCKMORE, THE GREATEST THEREMIN VIRTUOSA and can be purchased from Moog Music. Anyway, I began to carefully study the Rockmore theremin technique which is called “aerial fingering”. This method has many advantages over other approaches to the instrument and I have found that it offers maximum control with minimum effort.

It’s not that I wanted to play like Clara Rockmore but I wanted to possess her control, her stamina and her ease with the instrument. I’m still working on it.

Saggini: Two of the current greatest theremin players, Lydia Kavina and Pamelia Kurstin, are teaching theremin, do you plan to do the same?

Pringle: No, I do not.

Saggini: It’s not easy to acquire a vintage tube theremin like the ones you use. Do you think that this could be a problem for aspiring thereminists?

Pringle: No. There is no advantage to having a vintage theremin. The old tube instruments are very unreliable and are in constant need of maintenance and repair. One time, when I was promoting a concert, I appeared on a television show and took the Hoffman theremin along for a demonstration. The show was a “live” interview so there was no rehearsal or preparation. I set the theremin up, tested it briefly, and everything was fine. During the show, however, when I went over to the instrument to play it, IT WAS DEAD. Nothing! No sound!

This is an example of the kinds of things that can happen with vintage RCA’s. It turned out that the powerful electromagnetic fields generated by the television cameras and the other equipment in the TV studio were too much for the Hoffman theremin and it was overwhelmed. It worked when I tested it because the cameras were not on. This does not happen with modern instruments.

Another advantage of modern theremins – like the Ethervox theremin – is that they have a much greater range. The RCA has about three and a half octaves, while the Ethervox has almost ten octaves and three separate register settings.

Saggini: But what about the tone? Do you think that vintage tube theremins could be considered what the Stradivarius are for violinists?

Pringle: No. I do not. A Stradivarius cannot be imitated. A tube theremin could be, although no one has yet done it.

Saggini: Until some years ago there was only a professional thereminist in the world. But now besides Lydia Kavina we have, at least, Pamelia Kurstin and you. This could be the major result of the “theremin renaissance” of which has been talked about. Do you think that the availability of professional thereminist could stimulate the use of the theremin in contemporary music?

Pringle: It might. Again, the problem will be that a composer is going to have to find a thereminist who can play what he wants to hear. If there were 300 virtuoso thereminists in the world that would be easy. With only a very few it can get extremely expensive. What do you do if you are a composer in Rome and you need a thereminist? Fly someone in from Moscow or New York City? If we want to have a genuine “theremin renaissance” we are going to need more than three thereminists. We are going to need three thousand!

Saggini: Your CD provides a beautiful example of the expressive potential of the theremin when it’s played with great virtuosity. But it seems to me that if you had used real musical instruments for the bases instead of digital midi devices mimicking the real ones, the sound of the theremin would have been best appreciated. Do you think this will change in the future?

Pringle: My problem was money. It is too expensive to hire an orchestra – even a SMALL orchestra – in America. I had thought about the possibility of going to Prague to record some of the instrumental tracks because costs in some of the countries of Eastern Europe are much lower and the musicians are excellent. Still, it would have been many thousands of dollars, plus the cost of traveling. I decided to record everything myself, using as many acoustic instruments as possible (like the harp, the piano and the ghironda) and use synthesizers for the rest. After all, the theremin is the grandfather of the synthesizer so it was like a “family affair”.

Saggini: Your CD is a pout-pourri of different musical styles and as such it shows the versatility of the instrument, as well as of the thereminist, of course. But what are your intentions for the future, what musical style you like best for the theremin?

Pringle: I am already working on my next CD. Its working title is – MUSIC UNTOUCHED – and all the music on it is gestural. It is all theremin and MIDI theremin. There are no instruments on it that are touched in any way by the musician. Of course, the style of music on it is strictly electronic but I am trying to create something that people will want to listen to more than once!

Saggini: Do you plan to make concerts?

Pringle: I will probably do some appearances but I will have to wait and see what sort of offers I have.

Saggini: What goals are you trying to achieve with the publication of your CD?

Pringle: I am always surprised at how few people have ever heard of the theremin. In spite of books, magazines, documentary films etc., the theremin is still unknown. I am hoping for two things with the release of my CD. I would like to see an increase in general awareness of the instrument and I am hoping that MANY VOICES will inspire young musicians to study the theremin as a second instrument. As Clara Rockmore pointed out, the theremin should never be anyone’s first instrument.

Saggini: In your musical career you have gained success and obtained a wide popularity; but don’t you think that your current dedication to such an obscure and unpopular instrument like the theremin could be like some sort of seppuku for your musical career?

Pringle: I already committed musical ‘hara kiri’ when I retired in 1995. One thing about a popular music career is that it is like the career of a professional athelete. There is a time limit on it. About 85% of the CD’s that are sold in the world are bought by kids between the ages of 12 and 20. These people do not want to hear a popular singer who is 50 years old! They want to hear a singer who is 15 years old. This is something that many successful pop music artists have difficulty accepting. Yes, if you are a superstar of legendary proportions, you can go on forever doing geriatric rock tours. If you are like most people in popular music, however, you have three choices: you can permanently retire to a lovely villa by the sea, you can re-invent yourself by taking up some crazy instrument like the theremin, or you can commit REAL “seppuku”, like Dalida.

Saggini: Is there something you would like to say to contemporary composers about the theremin?

Pringle: Hmmm…..Yes, there is one important thing I would like to point out to composers. If you wish to write for the instrument, make sure you understand its limitations and its strong points. I have had compositions submitted to me by young composers but they cannot be played on the theremin! What often happens is that the composer will make a “demo” of his theremin piece using a keyboard snythesizer without understanding that what he is doing cannot be translated to the theremin. He can hear it in his mind but it cannot be played. All musical instruments have limitations and it is important to be aware of them if you wish to compose. It is easy to find out whether

something can be played on the violin or the cello because there are plenty of violinists and cellists around who you can ask. The obscurity of the theremin makes getting information more difficult.

Modern composers should remember that in the past, when composers have written for a particular instrument, they often had a particular virtuoso in mind and frequently that virtuoso happened to be an acquaintance of the composer.

Make friends with a thereminist!

Saggini: But for what reasons the theremin should be appealing for contemporary composers?

Pringle: The theremin has a unique, mysterious quality to it when it is played well. No other instrument can imitate it (except perhaps the human voice), it has a ten octave range, and perhaps most importantly it fills listeners with wonder and amazement. One of the problems with the theremin has always been that there have been so few thereminists. Historically, composers who actually DID write for the instrument (like Edgard Varese, Martinu, Schillinger and others) have ended up having to settle for an ondes Martenot player because no professional thereminist could be found.

Saggini: What are, in your opinion, the most significant scores originally written for the theremin to date?

Pringle: Sadly, Valerio, there is nothing that I consider to be of any real musical importance that has been written for the theremin. That is my personal opinion. The theremin seems to have made its mark in filmscore sound tracks and not in modern serious music. The CONCERTO FOR THEREMIN AND ORCHESTRA by the American composer, Anis Fuleihan, is a wonderful vintage curiosity but it is not a great piece of music. There are many new and interesting compositions being written for the theremin today but, like much modern music, these works are often never heard again after their debut. There is no public demand for them. It is one of the tragedies of the theremin that none of the great composers of the 20th century (like Gershwin, Rachmaninoff or Menotti or Messiaen) ever chose to write for the instrument. It attracted some very competent lesser composers whose works have been largely forgotten.

Saggini: How one can buy your CD or contact you for concert offerings?

Pringle: The CD can be purchased through my website:

http://www.PeterPringle.com

As far as concerts are concerned, I do very few of them and those that I do are close to home. I recently refused an offer to go to Japan. I figuered if I am going to commit “seppuku”, I don’t have to go to Japan to do it. I can do it at home!

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2 thoughts on “His Other Voices. An Interview with Peter Pringle

  1. Kristin says:

    I’m wondering if there’s any way to contact Peter Pringle via email to ask him about his recording of the Epic of Gilgamesh and if there’s any possible way to acquire it on vinyl. I have searched every other avenue and am desperately searching for it, to add to my friends collection. He is a massive fan and would die to have that in his library.

    Any help to contact Peter would be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you!

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