Saggini: We live in an age where the musician has an incredible amount of ways of creating sound at his disposal. In addition to the infinite possibilities offered by digital, even on the analog side, we now have a wider choice than the analog synthesizer’s golden age in the seventies. Not to mention the possibilities offered by the computer in terms of recording. In your opinion, what is the place of the theremin in this context one hundred years after its creation? What makes it still relevant and, so to speak, irreplaceable.
Ross: The Theremin is a very human instrument; it’s played by moving one’s hands in the air. There’s a great freedom of expressivity within range of the artist’s control. It mixes well in all musical environments. It still has the power to move and affect listeners. There are many different combinations possible acoustically and with analog and digital instruments.
Excerpts of Eric Ross’s performance at the Alternativa 06 festival in Prague.
In Bremen, Germany, we did a performance with Theremin and a 40-meter long string, with a fundamental tone down around 6 Hz (building rumble). Transposing the string along the nodes, added Theremin on top following the oscillations created a beautiful drone.
In Boston, in the garden of the Isabelle Stewart Gardener Museum (see photo), the five-story Venetian Palace, I used the natural reverb and delay of the space for the listeners in the balconies around the palazzo.
Saggini: You had the chance to personally meet Léon Theremin, Clara Rockmore, and Bob Moog. Can you tell us something about it?
Ross: In 1982, I worked with Youseff Yancy, jazz trumpeter and thereminist with Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, James Brown, among others. We began a long collaboration with concerts at Lincoln Center, Berlin Jazz Festival, Brussels New Music, and elsewhere. He suggested that I contact Clara Rockmore.
In 1982 I met Clara Rockmore, the great virtuosa of the theremin. She invited me to her apartment in New York City. I brought flowers, and we had tea in the Russian style. We signed and exchanged albums, my Soprano Songs and hers on Delos label, produced by Bob Moog. We discussed music, and she played her Theremin. She was an excellent player. Her violin teacher was the great Leopold Auer, and she had a cantabile style in her Theremin legato and vibrato. She could play at great speed and precision due to her unique aerial fingering. Beautiful tone and technique. She was interested in my Concerto. She said both she and Professor Theremin were glad to know someone writing new music for the “Thereminvox.” Her advice and encouragement were greatly appreciated. I wrote Concerto (Op.24) for two Theremins and Orchestra, premiered live at Lincoln Center in New York later that year. In Europe, in 1997, at “Theremin Summit” Berlin Jazz Festival, with three Thereminists (ER, Youseff Yancy, and Lydia Kavina).“Theremin Summit” in the Netherlands in 2016, with four players (ER, Lydia Kavina, Thorwald Jorgensen and Wilco Botermans) and ensembles. Clara Rockmore and I were musical friends and stayed in contact through the years.
In the 1990s, I did lecture concerts with Robert Moog at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. Among his many musical inventions were modular analog and digital synthesizers. Bob Moog started and ended his career making theremins. He said his synthesizers were inspired by Professor Theremin’s designs, which were both simple and elegant.
Bob helped me with a Theremin redesign especially for Europe touring. It was hand-built (from scratch, not a kit) by my tech team in the early 90s. Among other things, we changed some components, used heavy duty industrial parts, and filled in the rods with epoxy for a warmer sound. It worked well and sounded great in USA. But in Europe, we had some kind of voltage inversion, which only Bob was able to figure out and correct.
At the Theremin Festival in Maine in 1997, we did a week of concerts, classes, and press interviews together. I premiered Overture for 14 Theremins. (Op.46). This involved spreading all players around a theater stage, auditorium, and balcony, keeping instruments separate while maintaining visual sightlines. Bob helped with setup, monitoring, and to get the Theremins in good harmony. At that time, it was the most theremins playing together since Professor Theremin’s “Monster” concerts in the 1930s.
I played Bob’s new Moog Ethervox theremin, then in development, which led me into MIDI Theremin.
In 1991, I met Lev Theremin during the making of Steven Martin’s movie, “The Electronic Odyssey of Leon Theremin.” Steve called on the phone, “if you want to meet Theremin, come down this afternoon to the Mayfair Hotel in New York” and “bring your instrument.” I did so, and while we were setting up in the suite room, Professor Theremin came in, we were introduced, spoke briefly, his English was good, and they filmed us. I played my digital Theremin and through a wah-wah pedal. That got his attention; he hadn’t heard that before. He wanted to try it himself and did so to good effect. It was remarkable to see Lev Theremin play and with a wah-wah pedal. Afterwards he told me of his plans to build a polyphonic Theremin, one that could play chords. He was in his 90s then but still a creative and forward-thinking man.
The rare 16 mm. film footage of Eric Ross and Lev Theremin approx.10-15 minutes is in Steven Martin’s archive in LA.
Steven Martin, the Director of the 1994 Sundance Award Best Documentary film “The Electronic Odyssey of Leon Theremin,” says, “This is one of my favorite photos of Lev Sergeyevich. I took it in New York when I brought him there in 1991 to be reunited with Clara Rockmore. He was in his mid90’s yet clearly maintained his style and wit. You can see the handsome young man is still there. He’s with my friend, the well-known thereminist, Eric Ross. Eric brought along a small battery-powered theremin, and that was a big hit.”