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Lydia Kavina: The Theremin Yesterday And Today

Theremin virtuosa Lydia Kavina in Saint Petersburg
Lydia Kavina in Saint Petersburg (Photo courtesy of Lydia Kavina).

Saggini: The theremin featured prominently in various films, especially in the 1940s and 1950s. You yourself, much more recently, have participated as a thereminist on the soundtracks of at least three films. Do you think film composers have appropriately used the expressive potential of the theremin? Or has it remained a prisoner of a stereotype which, like a character actor, always relegates it to the same type of role? And do you have any anecdotes to tell us about your experience with film composers?

Kavina: The use of the theremin in film music is much diverse than it was back in 1940 and 1950 when it was mainly used to create a spooky or psychedelic effect. Today the theremin has more often a lyrical character in film music; often, it is a part of a general electronic soundscape. Other occasions where the theremin is used is when the player acts as a character in the movie, for example, in the films “Me and Kaminsky” and “Babilon Berlin.” While it can be used to recall a retro style, it could also appeal as a modern invention, like in “The Simpsons.”

In 1998 I was asked to record a theremin track in music for the film “eXistenZ.” The composer, Howard Shore, sent me the music sheets over to Moscow via fax and the prerecorded orchestra on the DAT (digital audio tape) via courier service. The DAT was eliminated at the Russian border customs, and I never received it. Then George, my husband, suggested he would modify the stationary telephone to be able to record the audio, that was about 45 minutes long, transmitted from the USA to Moscow. So we did. Then I made the recording of my theremin part overnight, listening to this recording, at my home.

Saggini: Recently Katica Illényi complained about the lack of a professional concert theremin. Do you agree? What models of theremin do you own and use? Is there anyone you think is more suitable for studio use and someone more suitable for live use?

Kavina: I play tVox Tour, which was built by my husband. This instrument has a gently sounding timbre, great pitch range, and rich volume. It is a fantastic professional instrument, and it is compact and easy to take when traveling. Another great professional theremin is Etherwave pro by Moog Music. Both designs Etherwave and tVox, had limited production long ago. There is indeed a need for more instruments of good quality. And we hope that the new production by Moog Music, Claravox, would fulfill this request.

Saggini: Do you happen to use FX with the theremin? Apart from the theremin, the music paper, and the pen, what are the tools you use in your daily work as a performer and composer?

Kavina: Not very frequently. For example, I use effect pedals, such as for additional sounds, delay, ring modulation, and looping. My first experience in this field was in 1988 while recording with Misha Malin for Brian Eno. Later, I also discovered the possibilities of MIDI connected with the theremin in my project with the visual artist Joachim Schaefer in Berlin in 1997 and then performing a MIDI-theremin: Ethervox, created by Bob Moog, in combination with the loop station in Asheville, NC, in 1998.

Saggini: “Waves & Strings,” the album you recorded with Sviatoslav Belonogov, is, in my opinion, magnificent. It is also a brave record because I don’t think the general public easily appreciates it. But, obviously, the general public is not the target of this work. Can you tell us how the idea of making an album focused on theremin, viola d’amore, and viola came about? And can you tell me which theremin you used on the various tracks?

Kavina: I played tVox Tour, my usual theremin. The initial idea of this project was developed by Sviatoslav Belonogov, the viola and viola d’Amore performer. By that time, I already had written a piece on his request, “In the Whims of the Sea,” and it was recorded for his another album. Then Sviatoslav got the idea of the whole album for this combination – theremin and Viola d’Amore. To me, it was interesting to create new music and to use the large possibilities of the great studio in Kirov (Russia). We also involved some other contemporary composers in writing for us, like Iraida Jusupova and Wladimir Rosinskij. However, classical pieces also play a great role in the album and make the whole project quite lively.

Saggini: Is there anything you would like to say, about the theremin, not just to theremin enthusiasts but generally to music lovers?

Kavina: I think the theremin is like a bond between traditional music and electronic, experimental sounds, and even other kinds of art. It can inspire many different musicians and artists. When starting to play the theremin, every person brings something new and discover new possibilities of the instrument. This tendency will have a positive impact on the theremin’s future.

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