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Masami Takeuchi: First Professional Thereminist of Japan

The Japanese theremin scene is a lively one. But it’s not easy to find information about it since most of the web sites are in the Japanese language only and Japanese theremin enthusiasts usually do not participate in English language online forums. The result is that Japan is like a theremin world apart. That’s why I’ve asked Gak Sato, a Japanese musician and producer living and working in Milan (Italy), to write something about it. (Valerio Saggini)

Born in Saitama, Japan, in 1967, Masami Takeuchi is perhaps the most popular thereminist in Japan. After graduating from Osaka University of Arts, in 1993 he began to study theremin under the guidance of Lydia Kavina. Founder of the “Friends of the Theremin” association, which currently counts about 200 members, Takeuchi has performed in more 140 concerts and appeared in over 90 TV and radio shows. He has published a biography of Léon Théremin (Ether Music and the Man who Lived 20th Century Russia, 2000), and his first CD Time Slips Away appeared in 2001.

Masami Takeuchi
Masami Takeuchi.

Sato: What is your musical background?

Takeuchi: As a child I devoted myself to the recording of environment sounds and noises and I was interested in recording technologies.

Later, when I was 15, I began playing keyboards and did some composition. Then I enrolled at the Osaka University of Arts where I took the musicology course, a parte of which was devoted to sound synthesis and, in general, music technologies.

Sato: How did you become a thereminist?

Takeuchi: I was looking for a personal instrument, one with which I could establish a closer relationship. Then by chance one day I heard Clara Rockmore‘s CD and was fascinated by the sound of the theremin. I felt the desire to play it, because this instrument allows for much greater interaction, more direct control… something you can’t find in any other existing musical instrument.

The Theremin in Japan

The theremin was heard in Japan for the first time in 1930 thanks to the arrival of a 78 rpm record by Lennington Shewell. The first theremin, sent by RCA Corporation, reached the country the following year and was tested by the mezzo-soprano Mitsuko Watanabe, but she wasn’t able to play it.

Shortly before the arrival of the theremin, the Japanese had their first contact with the Ondes Martenot, which was demonstrated by Claude Martenot himself and was very successful. The theremin, on the other hand, was perceived as an unfinished and primitive instrument. Later, the perception of the theremin was similar to that of other countries, where the common image of the instrument was that given by sci-fi soundtracks and rock musicians like Jimmy Page.

It was only with the arrival of Clara Rockmore‘s CD The Art of the Theremin in the early 1990s that the perception of the theremin in Japan began to change.

But the love affair of the Japanese with the theremin began only at the end of the 1990s, thanks to the initiatives of Masami Takeuchi and his intense proselytizing activity. Takeuchi founded the “Friends of the Theremin” association, taught courses, gave concerts, published CDs and two books and appeared in TV and radio shows.

The release, in 2001 of Steven Martin’s movie Theremin. An Electronic Odyssey has given a further boost to the theremin in Japan. (V.S.)

I started searching for information on the theremin and found an article about early electronic instruments written in 1979 by Prof. Kuniharu Akiyama (a poet, scholar of the 20th-Century avant-gardes with a passion for Erik Satie, and builder of an “intonarumori) which briefly mentioned the theremin. I found another mention of the theremin in a music dictionary. Both sources said the theremin was an unstable instrument, difficult to play on pitch. Then, in 1992, Bob Moog wrote an article on the theremin for the Japanese Keyboard Magazine which was the first really informative Japanese language article on the theremin.

Sato: Then what happened?

Takeuchi: In 1993 I went to Russia and stayed there more than a year to learn from Lydia Kavina. Then I began to play the theremin professionally in Japan, and in 1999 I started teaching it. Since 1999 my courses have been attended by more than 300 persons. Currently I have over 100 students. In 2000 I wrote the book Ether Music and the Man who Lived 20th Century Russia and the subsequent year I published the CD Time Slips Away. In 2002 I’ve published the method for theremin Playing the Theremin which includes a CD. I have appeared in many TV and radio shows and last year I marketed the Matryomin.

In 2003 I parted from “Friends of the Theremin” and founded the “Takeuchi Theremin Institute”, which publishes Thereminik, a monthly magazine, and in two years will make an archive and documentation centre (paper, audio, video) on the theremin available to members.

Sato: How many theremins do you have and what models?

Takeuchi: I have an old Pavlov theremin, a Big Briar Series 91a, a Big Briar Ethervox, a Big Briar Etherwave and a t-Vox tour.

Sato Which is your favorite?

Takeuchi: For concerts and recording sessions I’ve been using only the Series 91a since 1997. This is because of the better tone and volume control. Also, the Series 91 has a built-in speaker and that’s important because the vibration is transmitted to the body of the player and the audience through the floor, both in small and large concert halls. Those who manufacture theremins should be aware of the importance of a built-in speaker.

Masami Takeuchi and his Big Briar Series 91a theremin.
Masami Takeuchi and his Big Briar Series 91a theremin.

Sato: Who has had the most influence over your theremin playing and what kind of music are you playing now?

Takeuchi: Clara Rockmore and Lydia Kavina.

I’m not interested in any kind of contemporary music. When I’m at home I don’t even listen to music, I always read books.

Sato: Have you played with other Japanese thereminists?

Takeuchi: “Friends of the Theremin” arranges meetings in which we play together.

Sato: How long did it take you to master the instrument?

Takeuchi: I still haven’t reached that level.

Sato: What are some of your future projects?

Takeuchi: For now, I’d like every spectator at my concerts to bring a Matryomin so we can play together.

Sato: Any other projects?

Masami Takeuchi's theremin method cover.
Masami Takeuchi’s theremin method cover.

Takeuchi: I’d like to produce a Japanese theremin, since based on my experience with theremin playing I have some ideas to improve the instrument.

Sato: Do you think there are flaws or aspects to improve in the theremin as a musical instrument?

Takeuchi: In term of functions it’s complete. It isn’t necessary to add anything. It all depends on who is playing it. The only problem is the interference that happens between two theremins when they are close to each other. That is a problem that needs to be solved.

Sato Would you like to play some other instrument?

Takeuchi: No.

Sato: Have you played other instruments created by Prof. Theremin?

Takeuchi: The Terpsitone.

Sato: Nowadays, to make music it is common to use the computer. What do you think about it?

A page from Masami Takeuchi's theremin method
A page from Masami Takeuchi’s theremin method.

Takeuchi: I’m not interested in this because this is someone else’s job. As an interface, the theremin is very sensitive; unlike the computer, you have immediate feedback.

Sato: What about the theremin used as a controller?

Takeuchi: To me it’s not interesting.

Sato: Is there something else you would like to say?

Takeuchi: In Japan the theremin is by now widespread, as much as other instruments. Office workers, at the end of the working day, attend theremin courses. Some of my students have reached the professional level, but to them the theremin is still a hobby. I still don’t know why the theremin has become so popular in Japan. It has probably touched a chord.

Sato What is the extent of the spread of the theremin in Japan?

Takeuchi: It is difficult to quantify, but it may suffice to say that I’ve had 300 pupils. In 2001 Steven Martin’s movie Theremin. An Electronic Odyssey was released in theatres, and this has caused the Japanese people to be aware of what a theremin is. There were also TV shows, so it is pretty well known.

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