Saggini: In 1928, Léon Theremin claimed to be able to play one-hundredth tone intervals with his instrument. It would seem a somewhat reckless statement. Can you tell us your opinion about the possibilities of the theremin in the microtonal context and the use you made of them as a composer?
Kavina: In theory, the theremin can play an almost infinitely small interval. Practically, it depends on the performer’s music ear. A musician is able to play the microtones that they can distinguish. In reality the accuracy of the performance of microtonal intervals is relative. There are several microtonal compositions for the theremin. Sometimes I reject playing them, as they would involve enormous time of getting used to new tonal systems. Such challenge is not worth the time and energy needed for that task. Nevertheless, there are several works in my repertoire, that use microtones, that I play often. For example Free Music by Percy Grainger, “Theremin Holluzinationen” by Johanes Caspar Walter, pieces by Andrian Pertout, Junghae Lee and others. Sometimes, I also use microtones in my own works.
Saggini: How does it happen that a 9-year-old girl starts studying the theremin? I mean, the theremin is one of the most difficult musical instruments to learn, if not the most difficult. Personally, it would not occur to me to choose it as a child’s first instrument. But maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps instead, the innate spontaneity of children makes them particularly suitable for this instrument? And tell us about your encounter with the theremin as a child: was it love at first “gesture”? Or did it take some time before you got into the theremin? And why did Léon Theremin come up with the idea of teaching you and your sister the theremin? Did he see a potential musical talent in both of you? Or was he constantly looking for young talents to save the legacy of his invention?
Kavina: Actually, Lev was always happy to teach theremin to people who wanted to learn it. We were lucky that Lev Theremin was our relative, and he often visited our family. My sister and I studied at a musical school before Lev Sergeevich introduced the theremin to us. My sister did not go on with the theremin, but I regularly had lessons with him. I was interested in the theremin from the very beginning, and soon I was already using it in my compositions. However, the educational process and developing a serious approach took many years. Theremin’s great personality motivated me to help him promote his instrument.
Saggini: Correct me if I’m wrong, but, as far as I know, your first appearance in a discographical recording was in “Music for Films III” by Brian Eno, with the track For Her Atoms. Can you tell us something about it? How did this collaboration come about? Did you write and record For Her Atoms on your own and send it, or was there a direct involvement of Eno? And can you tell me something about Misha Mahlin?
Kavina: Misha Mahlin lived in St. Petersburg. He was one of the first composers to discover electronic sounds. He was a friend of Brian Eno and his wife and manager Anthea, and they requested him to compose several pieces, from which only one would be chosen for the “Music for films” album. His friends from Moscow passed a word around about me playing the theremin, and Misha got the idea to use theremin for his recordings. He then contacted me and arranged a recording studio in Moscow. All compositions were partially improvised. All synthesized sounds were composed by Misha. Then he sent tapes with recordings to England. I did not have contact with Brian Eno at that time; moreover, I even didn’t know English.
Saggini: You have lived in the UK for several years. Are the reasons for this choice personal or professional? What is the situation of music in Russia? Is the theremin taught at the conservatory? And can you tell us something about the Theremin Center in Moscow, whose site has been suspended for some time?
Kavina: This was a family reason for the move to the UK. My husband’s job brought us here in 2007. I think the situation with music in Russia is quite decent. In particular, Moscow and St. Petersburgh’s cultural life is very vivid.
Theremin Center existed for almost 20 years in the Moscow conservatory. This private electronic music studio was created by Andre Smirnov in 1992, and it allowed students, as well as many people from outside of the conservatory, to learn sound synthesis and to compose electronic music. Later I have started weekly theremin lessons there as well. I have to mention that the mid-1990s was the time of Perestroika in Russia and most people, in particular students, had no money to afford electronic music instruments or computers, so this studio gave them this opportunity. Andre Smirnov and I taught there for free. I gave theremin classes there every Friday at 6 pm, the same time of the week as Lev Theremin used to give me lessons when I was a child. This tradition stopped when I moved away, but I always give theremin workshops when I travel back to Moscow. Now the theremin is taught by Peter Theremin, the great-grandson of Lev Theremin, who established the Russian Theremin school a few years ago.
Andre Smirnov also built theremins, organized events, and spent a lot of his time researching the history of early development of electronic sound in Russia.
As time passed, the activity of Theremin Centre was integrated into the academic programs and combined with another conservatory department. About 10 years ago, the conservatory had a renovation, and the inside was completely rebuilt. Andre is still continuing with scientific research in the conservatory, but all his instruments, as well as a collection of Lev Theremin’s inventions, have been moved to his new studio, Soundlab, at Rodchenko Art school.