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Lev Termen Himself Taught Me to Play it

Lydia Kavina & Lev Termen

Penzholz: Before talking about you, I think we should first talk about your instrument. What kind of instrument is it, and who invented it?

Kavina: The Theremin was invented in 1920 by the Russian physicist Lev Theremin from St. Petersburg. You can think of it as the first electronic musical instrument ever seen on a stage and the first for which original music was written.

Penzholz: How exactly does it work?

Kavina: I would have to go into a lot of technical detail to explain that, but I can give you a rough idea: It builds up an electromagnetic field around the aerials, and I can influence this field just by moving my hands in it. The aerials are connected to oscillators – high-frequency generators – that produce the actual sound. And so, by changing the field, I control the oscillators and make them produce different tones.

Penzholz: So you have to hit the points that match the invisible chords exactly…

Kavina: Theoretically, yes, but of course you can never measure this with millimetric precision. You have to play on the basis of what you hear. It is an instrument that obviously requires you to have very well coordinated hand movements and almost absolute pitch.

Penzholz: How many people play this instrument in the world?

Kavina: By now we can say that a lot of people is learning theremin. Some of my pupils are very gifted and a few of them even play in public; but at a really professional level, I am afraid there’s probably only Pamelia Kurstin and me for the moment. However the instrument already has a long history and there were some very skilful players in the past, such as Clara Rockmore: she was one of Lev Theremin’s pupils in the thirties and became a real virtuoso with it.

Penzholz: And so have you, of course. How did you learn this Instrument?

Kavina: Lev Theremin himself taught me to play it. He was my great-uncle and gave me regular lessons each week. He fortunately reached the very old age of 97 years, and he was already in his eighties when I was only 9 years old. But he was still very active and capable of giving me real lessons.

Penzholz: Would you say this instrument will become widely used in the near future, or is it really just a nostalgic souvenir?

Kavina: It will certainly assert itself. You can tell that by the comeback it is having right now. More importantly, it is being produced in large quantities and is a commercial success. A few instruments are sold every day along with my video tape in which I explain how to play it. People really learn it and compose music for it.

Penzholz: Being an electronic instrument, could it be suitable for telematic concerts?

Kavina: The Theremin combines many of the qualities of both electronic and traditional instruments: it has the sensitivity and living feel of classical instruments but also all, or at least many of the, properties of electronic music devices. So you can use different methods of communication and even “remote playing” is not a problem.

Penzholz: You give concerts all over the world. What was it like playing in this small Italian village where you recorded your first live album “Concerto per Theremin”?

Kavina: It was something very special, a very romantic feeling. It was definitely a great pleasure to be here and to play in this naturally-built theatre with its own ready-made stage set. The other musicians were also very proficient, and so it was really a lot of fun to play along with them.

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