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Lydia Kavina: theremin is leading us to a unique synthesis of sense, sound, light and music

Russian-born and based in the UK for the last 13 years, Lydia Kavina is currently one of the leading performing musicians on theremin. She studied the theremin under the direction of the inventor Lev Theremin who was her distant relative. Lydia also studied piano and holds a degree in music theory and composition from the Moscow Conservatory. Lydia worked for many theatre productions, among them: ballet “The Little Mermaid” by Lera Auerbach and John Neumeier, in Copenhagen, Hamburg and Beijing (2005-2018), music drama “The Tragedy of a Friendship” by Moritz Eggert and Jan Fabre, dedicated to R. Wagner’s anniversary (Gent, 2013), opera “Baehlamms Fest” by Olga Neuwirth in Vienna, Hamburg and Luzern (1999-2002), musicals “Alice” and “Black Rider” by Tom Waits and Robert Wilson in Hamburg and Cologne (1992-1998).

As a solo performer Kavina appeared in such projects as “The Sound of Hitchcock” with the BBC SSO in Glasgow in 2015, “Tim Burton and Danny Elfman’s show” with BBC Concert Orchestra and London Symphony at London Royal Albert Hall and in the UK tour 2013-2014, 4 th Symphony by Charles Ives, under Kent Nagano (Hamburg and Zurich, 2018-2019), “The Film Music of Howard Shore” with Pittsburgh Symphony and Orquesta Sinfonica de Tenerife (2016), “Testament” by Nicolai Obouhov with Netherlands Radio Orchestra under Reinbert de Lewes in 2006, First Symphony by Lera Auerbach with Duesseldorf Philharminica in 2006 , “Jeanne d'Arc au Bucher” by Arthur Honegger with National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia under Vladimir Spivakov in 2005, Big Theremin concert with Orchestra SOSPESSO at New York Lincoln Center Festival in 2000. Lydia is an active promoter of new experimental music for the theremin and she is a composer herself. Kavina‘s Concerto for Theremin and Symphony Orchestra was first performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra, under Gil Rose in 1997.

Lydia, do you remember how you got interested in music? What were your first steps in becoming a musician in Moscow?

I think that many musicians usually start their music lessons in childhood, and this is when their inclination to do it professionally is formed. Often people around them see a child’s talent, while he or she is not aware of it. Some kids might have this kind of determination – ‘I will become a musician’, but more often it is formed gradually. Therefore, the way the family considers relative importance of musical education is fundamental in most cases for formation of musicians. When I was little, my sister, who was 8 years older, studied the violin. I heard the sound of violin in our house since my early age. And then the teacher in the kindergarten told my mother that her daughter should study music, and so she brought me to a free Soviet music school and signed me up. My mother's influence on me was enourmous: she was a very musical person, played the piano and even studied singing at the Conservatory for one year. She became my first music guide and taught me to play my first songs. She noticed that I started composing, and she helped me in every way, recording that early pieces for me. Then, when my compositions became more complex, she bought a tape recorder for them. But I resisted and didn’t follow this path straight away. The understanding that music was really my vocation came at the age of 17-18, when I was already studying at a music college.

At what stage did you realize that music as a means of expression differs from other types of art for you? Why it was music that was channeling your emotions and states of mind?

I don’t master other types of art: I can't draw or write poetry. Other artists often have multiple talents. But in my case music was the only creative activity that I was good. It is important for everyone to be perceived by others. Most musician do what they do not only because they like to make music at home, but also because they like to convey music to others, to see how it reaches the audiences. This interaction is very important. You play something and people like it. And this supports you, you realize that you are not doing this for nothing, you want to do it again.

Please describe your years at the Conservatory. What was fundamental during these years for your future career? When did you start to play theremin?

The theremin appeared in my life quite early and has always developed in parallel with my musical education. Lev Sergeyevich Theremin started teaching me to play the instrument he invented when I was about 9 years old. So, playing theremin, composition, and learning to play piano at music school were three musical paths that I developed in parallel. I had an interest in composition, so I began to study music theory at a music college. At that time it was named after the October Revolution – now it has been re-named Schnittke Institute of Music. At the same time, I began performing with the Orchestra of Electronic Musical Instruments of the Soviet Radio and Television under the direction of Vyacheslav Meshcherin. It was a very important stage experience for me. And then, at the Conservatory, my studies continued at the Faculty of theory and composition.

Do you have childhood memories of Lev Theremin? How did your classes go? Was this instrument rare and exceptional at that time? Or had it already conquered musicians and the world? Were you one of the first ones among Lev’s students?

Indeed, the situation was very different from today. Lev Sergeyevich was my relative and course, often visited our family, and I naturally knew him personally. He was a very charming man. His qualities were modesty, extreme delicacy, very kind attitude to people. When Lev Sergeyevich taught me, he was already over 80. However, he was very healthy and looked much younger than his years. In his 80s he used stairs in the building and danced at all sorts of youth parties. He didn't act like an old man at all. And that is what I always admired about him. This was a life-long role model. In addition, he was always able to make communication easy through making little jokes. He was also a very romantic man. This youthful romanticism remained with him. This was especially evident in his gaze that was full of light, enthusiasm and admiration.

So he had this gift of admiring the world as a child would?

Absolutely. And first of all, he was an inventor who always had some new ideas in his head. Many of his ideas were incomprehensible at the time, but now they have become everyday, normal things. But forty years ago many people considered them to be «just some old man's fantasies». In Soviet times it was quite difficult for engineers and inventors to promote their inventions, and it was the same for Theremin. To make things worse there were no basic parts,necessary tools and materials. And, of course, there was a fierce rigidity in relation to everything new, to inventors in general. It was especially difficult for Lev Sergeyevich because of his age. The attitude was: «What are these fantasies? What does he want? Let the old man just finish his days in quiet» - especially since all his ideas were far ahead of his time.

Are you referring to a theremin here or some other inventions?

Theremin didn't just invent the theremin. He was constantly having new inventions in his head that he was trying to promote. Very rarely some people still understood and supported him: those were Bulat Galeev, Director Of the Institute of Light Music in Kazan and Sergey Mikhailovich Zorin, Founder of the Optical Theater in Moscow. Of course, they had to deal with the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union at that time. In the USSR all innovations, in art included, were declared as channels of harm from the West – for instance, electronic music studios were closing at that period.

It was in the 1970s and 1980s when Sergey Kuryokhin and Boris Grebenshchikov started their careers, right?

They were still quite underground. We are talking about the mid-70s when my theremin training began. My parents did their best to help Theremin in every way and were trying to find a room for Lev Sergeyevich where he could develop his electronic inventions. My father also made some wooden parts for Theremin’s instruments. This was how I grew attached to Theremin–I saw how my parents treated him.

And how many students did Lev Theremin have at that time?

Theremin had no students at that time except for his own daughters, Elena and Natalia. He had almost no other students, although he was always happy to show others how to play the theremin. But people's interest in learning this instrument was usually short-lived.

But you remained with him?

Yes, I was one of his regular students at that moment. Later, when I was studying at the Music College a circle of theremin players was formed there – my mother initiated it – and Lev Sergeyevich began to regularly teach new students. This was in 1985-1986.

Can you describe what makes this instrument unique, what new elements does it introduce to the world of music?

On the one hand, the theremin opened the era of electronic musical instruments in general. On the other hand, the theremin is still unique in the way it is played. Its principle of sound extraction is free movement, without touching anything with your hands. For the musician,this means a completely new mentality of playing the instrument. With other traditional musical instruments things have to be memorized mechanically and physically. Through pressing a combination of buttons, the musician hears the melody he or she is able to produce, and then it starts to sound in his head. With the theremin, a completely different approach is used: you first hear the melody in your head and imagine the sound, and then you start looking for it in this space in front of you – in the air. Without forming a music image in your head you actually cannot figure out what you are looking for because there is no other reference point for finding this note than your own inner hearing. The sound must be found by ear and intuition. This is a completely new way to communicate with an electronic device as you do not need to click on anything. This type of communication with objects has begun to appear only in the XXI century. For example, we approach doors, and they open simply when we approach them, or with sensors in restrooms–waving your hand to get water. This intuitive control of devices has appeared only recently. We start waving our hand while not knowing exactly how exactly it will work. We intuitively try to find the right movement and the distance when the device responds. We move the computer mouse also instinctively - we move until we get to the right place and then we stop.

So, to play the theremin, you need experience, correct? You move intuitively, but through practice you already know what exact sound will occur.

Of course, on the theremin, as on any musical instrument, you need time to learn it. My point is that forty years ago, when I started learning to play, it was completely unclear how you could control something without touching anything. There were no such devices in existence. There were buttons, there were levers, all of them requiring physical contact. There were no devices that worked at a distance. And so it was all very new, and for a long, long time it was unusual for musicians who wanted to start playing. Now people are psychologically prepared for this technique because we communicate with all the devices that we need to control by intuition. And the theremin is now also much easier to master.

How did the theremin gradually become part of the world repertoire and what pieces have you been playing, specifically?

It was a very interesting process. When the theremin was invented. There was no new music written for it at first. And I still wanted to play it, so I played existing music, mostly vocal and the repertoire for cello and violin. First of all, Lev Sergeyevich Theremin himself did it very well–he was an educated cellist, among other things, and he had a great musical sense and taste. He played the theremin very beautifully, with such noble expressiveness, in the spirit of that time, maybe a little too sentimental for today, but this was the style at the beginning of the XX century. So some classical pieces thanks to Lev Theremin, have entered the repertoire of the theremin, with Rachmaninoff's romances and «The Swan» by Saint-Saens being favorite pieces for all theremin players. I believe that «Swan», when performed well, sounds better on theremin because the sound is clear, soaring, endless, without a tinge of creaking that is characteristic for strings.

But the world still needed works that were initially composed for theremin performers?

Indeed, and such works began to appear soon enough. First of all, there was is a Symphonic Mystery by Andrey Pashchenko. In 1923 Lev Sergeevich performed it as a soloist on the theremin with the Petrograd Philharmonic orchestra. Then in 1929 the First Aerophonic Suite for theremin with the orchestra was composed by Joseph Schillinger, with Lev Theremin being its first performer. If for Andrei Pashchenko the theremin was one of the orchestral instruments, for Schillinger it became a soloist. Schillinger emigrated after the Revolution to the USA, wrote several works for theremin and was a very active participant of the Studio organized by Theremin in New York.

Did Theremin remain the only theremin performer for a long time?

Yes and no. He was the main performer on the instrument for the first decade, but he began to have students early, and one of them, Konstantin Kovalsky, began playing it from the beginning of the 20s. They even played in a duet:Theremin and Kovalsky. Then Theremin went abroad for a long time, so Kovalsky had been the main theremin player during most of the Soviet era. Kovalsky played, in particular, in all Soviet film music, in the first sound films. For example, he performed Gavriil Popov's music for one of the first sound films in Russia, «Komsomol is the leader of electrification» in 1932. Also he performed in sound films with Shostakovich's music, radio plays, music for Soviet cartoons. Kovalsky played on a slightly different theremin model than the one we know, which had only one antenna regulating the pitch of the sound while its volume was regulated by a foot pedal, and you had to use the left hand to switch on the sound. These two versions of the theremin developed in parallel. While Kovalsky continued to play on the single-antenna model of the theremin, Theremin himself soon abandoned this version and improved the two-antenna theremin, so that during playing he did not have to touch touch anything at all.

After Schillinger, what were other milestones in the history of the instrument?

Schillinger’s work marked the beginning of theremin's time in America. There he opened a studio and had new students, as he himself put it, «twenty black and twenty white ones». And among them, the most remarkable was Clara Rockmore. She was born in Riga, and studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory from the age of five. She was a child prodigy, started her concert career as a violinist, and went abroad, performing all over Europe. During the Revolution she left Russia and settled in New York where she met Lev Sergeyevich. Clara was a great virtuoso of the theremin. Moreover, she motivated Theremin for technical development of his instrument so that he made it more professional, with a more beautiful timbre, a wider range and more responsive to movements. Theremin was absolutely in love with Clara. He was able to implement the required innovations and achieve significant development of his instrument through their collaborations. It was for Clara Rockmore that the most striking work of the time was written, the Concerto For Theremin and Orchestra by Anis Fuleihan. This is a very virtuosic work, and she performed it quite brilliantly with an orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowsky. Klara was a world-class theremin star, and it is difficult to overestimate her importance, not only because she contributed to the technical development of the instrument, but also as she developed the technique of playing the theremin. She developed the finger technique with active use of the wrist. Also she had a very convincing interpretation of the works she played. When her performances were shown on video at the end of the 20th century, they greatly contributed to the renaissance of the theremin, as people wanted to copy her style.

And what works for theremin appeared in the end of the XX century?

So many works exist now that I cannot name them all. But even in the middle of the XX century such compositions were still rare. For example, John Cage experimented with the theremin. He asked Robert Moog to make a theremin with wide-spaced antennas so that he could move around the stage, create a performance. Alfred Schnittke used theremin in several of his works, although his interest in electronic music was short-lived. I don't think I'm exaggerating too much when I say that the renaissance and the development of a new compositional style for theremin began when I started performing, in my teenage years. The first of the works from this period was a Symphonic Suite for Theremin and Orchestra and «Vietnamese album» by composer Tatyana Borisovna Nazarova-Metner. I think that this was the beginning of a new, modern wave of works for theremin. Then I started asking other composers to write for me. I myself also wrote new works, but I wrote in my own style, while as a performer I was interested in diversity, and so I kept comissioning new works from my composer friends. I was a professional musician who was interested in forming and expanding the instrument’s repertoire, and I could test composers’ ideas and experiment in my performances.

Could you describe your life as a professional theremin player today?

I try to cover as many different types of music as possible. I'm interested in the theremin because it always opens up something new for me. I never refuse to play new things. I am interested in music for movies, jazz, new classical music, installations and experimental performances. My main specialization has been in theatre and opera music, classical and modern academic music. In theatre my first experience was exceptionally important that advanced my career immensely. In 1992 I performed at Talia Theater (Hamburg) in the musical «Alice in Wonderland» by Tom Waits and Robert Wilson. It was an interesting experience as the theremin in that musical served as a link between the orchestra pit and the stage. I was raised above the orchestra pit so that the audience could see me better, as here the visual effect was very important. My lyrical melodies, dashing glissandos, various howls imitated by theremin, chirping of a bird, the hooting of a bass–all this fitted very well into theatrical performance. Theremin has a large range of sounds which is important for theatre where it is necessary to portray a lot of different emotions and effects. For me it was also the beginning of an international career, as after it I started performing in different countries.

I know that you also performed in an opera in Mexico.

Yes, it was a very interesting production of «La Voix Humaine» by Poulenc in Mexico. Another highlight was «The Little Mermaid», a ballet by John Neumeier with music by Lera Auerbach. This ballet was a huge success and remained in the repertoire of several theaters, including the Musical Theatre of Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko in Moscow. It remained in Hamburg Theatre’s repertoire for 12 years. I performed in most of its performances, starting with the premiere in Copenhagen in 2005, in almost all the performances in Hamburg for 12 years, also in Beijing.

Who are the the leading theremin players today?

Yes, and they are very talented students of mine: Olesya Rostovskaya in Russia and Carolina Eyck in Germany who is now the leading performer on theremin in the world.

Do you have opportunities for teaching theremin?

When you perform, people tend to ask about the nature of the theremin, which remaisn mysterious, so an element of enlightenment is always necessary. I have been teaching the theremin since 1986, and I had groups and individual students, was giving lectures and educational concerts. I should say that Lev Sergeyevich Theremin himself started this genre of theremin performance that was a lecture-concert that provided knowledge about the instrument. This genre is still actively maintained.

What can the theremin give a musician in terms of understanding his or her place in the world and new musical sensations?

Here I see two directions for the development of the theremin. On the one hand, it is still exciting to use it in its classic version, as its voice and its sound captivates and touches people. It has an extremely flexible and emotional sound that is similar to that of a violin and reaches the soul, goes straight to the heart In its classic version it has become slightly conservative, but it is still interesting to listen to it when it is well played. The theremin is a bridge between traditional instruments and electronic ones. As a traditional instrument, it is very sensitive and should be played sensitively. It is important how you will express your soul through it – which is not a valid concept when you play a synthesizer.

So the thererim serves as a channel of the performer’s soul...

Yes, the performance of different artists will be very different, because everyone's musical vision is different. Here it holds the middle ground between violinists and vocalists. If we hear several violinists in a recording, sometimes we cannot distinguish them, as a lot of things are similar. With vocalists we tend to quickly recognize the voice as each performer has its own timbre, interpretation and personal psychology. And here the degree of theremin’s diversity in the hands of different instrumentalists stands somewhere in the middle. It is more diverse than the violin, but not as distinctive as vocal performances, but there is still an enourmous range of self-expression. The timbre may be more powerful than the violin or the voice, but thanks to the way we play, the movement of our hands in space, the sound becomes so penetrating and at the same time so elusive that you always try to catch it with your ear. Theremin is always slightly little insecure, a little unpredictable, unstable, similar to human psyche. Also those who like theremin listen to it because it keeps their attention, it doesn't let go, it is a powerful solo instrument.

To some extent, in order to listen to it, you need fantasy, correct?

Yes, a listener begins to sharpen his hearing and listen to the sound. The theremin synchronizes your inner and outer hearing, and they are further enhanced by visual perception. When you can trace a change in sound through the movement of the hand, you are directly magnetized by the process. You can see how the melody changes through following the movements of performer’s hands. This relationship creates magic, and this is unique for perception of theremin. Here we could compare the effect to conductor's movements. We always follow the hands of the conductor even though he or she doesn’t play. But as we hear how the music changes and see his or her movements, we instinctively relate these movements to the music. And in contrast, for example, with a synthesizer just pressing one key creates the whole sea of sounds. And it may not impress you at all, because you don't understand and don’t visually follow how it happened. There is no relationship between movement and sound here.

At the same time, the theremin is an electronic instrument, so unlike traditional instruments, it can also create some unearthly, frightening, otherworldly, alien sounds. As technology is developing in this direction, there are already a lot of theremin performances where its basic methods are being implemented through a variety of new technical methods, and the results may be quite different. For example, you can use not only the electromagnetic field in the performance, but also infra-light sensors, and their result may not necessarily be resulting in sound. We can control different synthesized sounds o change the light in the room with our movements during a performance. You can use an antenna, but one could control not the sound through it, but for example a computer program that changes the color scheme on the screen or regulates the appearance of different images on the huge display. I believe that it was theremin that has given the momentum to augmented reality technologies.

How do you see the instrument’s future in the next few decades? What are you trying to develop with your own performances?

Well, first of all, it is very nice to see that the number of people who are playing theremin is growing exponentially. Therefore, everyone who begins to play theremin brings something unique and individual, developing it in their own area of specialization. Jazz musicians find new performing techniques to play jazz improvisations on it. Electronic engineers immediately begin to connect theremin to different analog synthesizers and create new sounds. The variety of theremin's repertoire is literally bubbling and will continue to develop. On the other hand, the development of the theremin as a controller for various other phenomena in art is also happening vast. It involves the principle of space control for creating new works of art. It could control pictures, light, video, smells – and Theremin was envisioning all this in the beginning of the XX century. You can read his posters of the 1920s where he talks about the possibility of synthesizing music and color, music and touch, music and smell. He explained and even demonstrated how to do it. For example, the sound associated with touch–the sound of a theremin can be connected to a device that will move material put in the armrests of the audiences’ seats. Or, for example, the sense of smell–accordingly, different smells will fill the auditorium. Music and light–Theremin created an Illuminovox where the projector was controlled by the sound of the theremin. The colour of the screen behind the performer was changing gradually depending on the range of notes played–from red in the bass to blue in the upper register. Theremin was a a practical researcher, a pioneer of light and music technology.

Are there modern visionaries in this area?

For example, Andrey Smirnov has started the Theremin Center in Moscow and has restored many of Theremin's instruments – he continues to develop many of his creative ideas. In Europe, there is Coralie Ehinger who lives in Switzerland and experiments a lot with connecting theremin to a variety of devices and computer programmes. While playing theremin, she supplements the performanes with a variety of sounds, a conversation of some kind or video frames. And in the United States there is Randy George who lives in Los Angeles. He has created a software programme Midi Merlin that allows you to play theremin and control a variety of computer programs. A performer continues to play on the antennas of the theremin, but depending on how they program it, the result may be not be necessarily the sound of theremin, but of a computer program or some synthesizer. Or maybe something else could be included–not necessarily sounds. Theremin antenna serves as a sensor, a method of control. Naturally, a person should continue to play, but he or she does not necessarily play the musical scale, while being able to control various things.

Can one improvise on theremin and present the flow of ideas in one’s head?

I started such experiments in the late 90's when it became possible to transmit the sound of a theremin over MIDI technology. Robert Moog, the world's largest theremin manufacturer, made a MIDI theremin at the time. MIDI allows you to transfer information from one electronic musical instrument to another. We play the keys of one synthesizer with the sounds of another. In this case, you could play the theremin with the sounds of a synthesizer. For example, you can assign a drum kit sound to it. And so, I move my hands next to the theremin but what you hear is the sound of percussion. This is how I played at the festival organized by Robert Moog's company in the United States in 1998. And even earlier, in 1997, and it was probably my very first experience of this kind. It was a project with Berlin-based artist and programmer Joachim Schaeffer. We did a performance where I played the theremin and controlled the images on the screen. A video was recorded beforehand of me shrugging, blinking and and dancing. And then this video was divided into frames, and with MIDI technology transmitting information from the theremin to the computer, each note was recognized by the computer and assigned to one of these frames. I was playing a melody on the theremin with images changing on the screen at the same time. And in our next work with Joachim Schaeffer we created entire movies. I played the theremin, controlled the sounds of the synthesizer – noises, knocks, and so on – and at the same time the same movements controlled the images of the video sequence. We took, for example, a few fragments from the movie «Battleship Potemkin» and I played them in a new order, creating a new film from these frames. So the movement of my hands next to theremin antennas created for the viewers completely non-theremin sounds and the process of appearance of a new movie. So theremin and this idea of control can really lead to amazing new developments in future.

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