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Lydia Kavina: The Theremin Yesterday And Today

Theremin Virtuosa Lydia Kavina in Chile
Lydia Kavina in Chile (Photo courtesy of Lydia Kavina).

Lydia Kavina is one of the greatest thereminists of all time. The last protégé of Léon Theremin, she started studying the theremin at the age of nine. She played a fundamental role in the so-called “renaissance of the theremin,” performing all over the world, making recordings, participating in film soundtracks, writing original music for theremin, and teaching the instrument to new generations of thereminists.

I had the pleasure of exchanging a few words with her.

Saggini: This year marks the 100th anniversary of the theremin, but also, in my own small way, the 22nd anniversary since I met you and became seriously interested in the theremin. Then things were much different. It was tough to find theremin recordings, at least in Italy. The only theremin you could buy was the Big Briar Etherwave. The only educational resource was your video, produced by Big Briar, “Mastering the Theremin.” And you rightly stated in the interview you gave to Reiner Penzholz in Colletta di Castelbianco that at that moment, the only professional thereminist around was you. However, in that interview, you expressed optimism for the theremin’s future, predicting that many more thereminists would arrive. It seems to me that time has proved you right. Can you follow up on the words you said 22 years ago?

Kavina: When we met in 1998, the renaissance of the theremin had already started. The number of theremin beginner players rapidly raised as soon as Robert Moog released the Etherwave theremin. The success of this production was thanks to the musicians’ interest in new ways toward live-controlled electronic instruments. Other reasons that led to success were the famous theremin performance by Clara Rockmore, shown in the movie “THEREMIN: An Electronic Odyssey,” and an increase of publicly available information about the theremin and its inventor, which became more accessible in the time of Perestroika.

Saggini: It has now been more than ninety years since, in the US press, important musicians, such as Leopold Stokowski and Leon Theremin himself, predicted that, within a few years, the theremin would become a permanent presence in symphony orchestras. And although you, personally, can boast various experiences with symphony orchestras, things did not go exactly this way. What assessment can we draw on this today? And what was your experience as a thereminist about it?

Kavina: Ninety years ago, Stokowski and Theremin did not predict that the need for the orchestra itself will decrease during the XX century. Some music sounds that we hear all around today are not the same as they were one hundred years ago; they are replaced by synthesized sounds. What is interesting, the theremin belongs to both – electronic and traditional musical fields. It took longer than a few years; however, the theremin has its place in the orchestra. Of course, the musician playing the theremin in the orchestra must be professionally educated. Music education, as well as mastering the new instrument, always takes several, many years. There should be thousands of beginners to make dozens of professionals and a couple of real stars. Only the XXI century gave the needed quantity of thereminists.

If talking about theremin use in the orchestra, in most cases, it is very interesting, expressive, and powerful. Some examples: Anis Fuleihan’s concerto, brilliantly played by Clara Rockmore, blows away by the virtuosity. “The Little Mermaid,” the ballet music by Lera Auerbach, premiered by myself, is a realization of the humanly suffering voice of a non-human creature. “Eight Seasons” by Kalevi Aho, composed for Carolina Eyck, shows a wide range of theremin images, from thoughtful, lyrical to sounds of nature.

Saggini: Related to the previous question is the question of original theremin music. You are a composer yourself and have written seminal pages of theremin music. Is there interest from musical institutions in new original music for theremin? And is there interest, on the part of composers, in writing for this instrument? Are there any difficulties in this regard and which ones? And, by the way, is there a recording of your Concerto for theremin and symphony orchestra?

Kavina: There is a private recording of my concerto that, unfortunately, cannot be published because of copyright.

Every day there is more and more original music. Composers do write for theremin, and each of them has very different ideas of theremin use: sound colour (Charles Ives), spooky howls (Howard Shore), vocal-like melodies (Bohuslav Martinu), expressionism (Jorge Antunes), microtonal irritations (Percy Grainger), gests and pantomime (Jorge Campos), cosmic landscapes (Vladimir Komarov), the resource for new notations (Vladimir Nikolaev), various combinations with other instruments and with voice (Carolina Eyck).

One of my projects for 2020 was the Runswick Prize composers’ competition of students of Trinity Laban Conservatory in London. 9 compositions for theremin and chamber orchestra were written and recorded. In the previous years, there were several other projects across the globe: USA, Russia, Germany, and Switzerland, where many composers wrote for a single theremin album, festival, or series of concerts.

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