An Interview with Leon Theremin
Olivia Mattis 1989
Olivia Mattis and Leon Theremin in Bourges, France - 16th June 1989
With many thanks to Olivia Mattis for permission to reproduce this article, and the accompanying photograph.
Mattis: Please tell me about your early life, and about your scientific and musical training.
Theremin: I was born in Leningrad, which was then called St. Petersburg, in 1896. My father was a lawyer, and my mother was interested in the arts, especially music and drawing. Even before high school I was interested in physics, in electricity, and in oscillatory motions like those of a pendulum. In high school I was interested in physics, and after playing the piano I started studying cello. While in high school, I entered the Conservatory on the cello, and I graduated with the title of "free artist on the violoncello." Then I entered the university, and majored in physics and astronomy.
Mattis: When did you first conceive of your instrument?
Theremin: The idea first came to me right after our Revolution, at the beginning of the Bolshevik state. I wanted to invent some kind of an instrument that would not operate mechanically, as does the piano, or the cello and the violin, whose bow movements can be compared to those of a saw. I conceived of an instrument that would create sound without using any mechanical energy, like the conductor of an orchestra.
Mattis: Why did you make this instrument?
Theremin: I became interested in bringing about progress in music, so that there would be more musical resources. I was not satisfied with the mechanical instruments in existence, of which there were many. They were all built using elementary principles and were not physically well done. I was interested in making a different kind of instrument. And I wanted, of course, to make an apparatus that would be controlled in space, exploiting electrical fields, and that would use little energy. Therefore I used electronic technology to create a musical instrument that would provide greater resources....
Mattis: What did Lenin think of it, and why did you show it to him?
Theremin: In the Soviet Union at that time everyone was interested in new things, in particular all the new uses of electricity: for agriculture, for mechanical uses, for transport, for communication. And so then, at that time, when everyone was interested in these fields, I decided to create a musical use for electricity. I made a few first apparatuses that were made [based on principles of] the human interference of radio waves in space, at first used in [electronic] security systems, then applied to musical purposes. I made it, and I showed it at that time to the leaders. There was a big electronics conference in Moscow, and I showed my instruments there. It made a big splash. It was written up in the literature and the newspapers, of which we had many at that time, and many doors were opened [for me then] in the Soviet Union. And so Vladimir Il'yich Lenin, the leader of our state, learned that I had shown an interested thing at this conference, and he wanted to get acquainted with it himself. So they asked me to come with my apparatus, with my musical instrument, to his office, to show him. And I did so.
Mattis: What did Lenin think of it?
Theremin: I brought my apparatus and set it up in his large office in the Kremlin. He was not yet there because he was in a meeting. I waited with Fotiva, his secretary, who was a good pianist, a graduate of the conservatory. She said that a little piano would be brought into the office, and that she would accompany me on the music that I would play. So we prepared, and about an hour and a half later Vladimir Il'yich Lenin came with those people with whom he had been in conference in the Kremlin. He was very gracious; I was very pleased to meet him, and then I showed him the signaling system of my instrument, which I played by moving my hands in the air, and which was called at that time the thereminvox. I played a piece [of music]. After I played the piece they applauded, including Vladimir Il'yich [Lenin], who had been watching very attentively during my playing. I played Glinka's "Skylark", which he loved very much, and Vladimir Il'yich said, after all this applause, that I should show him, and he would try himself to play it. He stood up, moved to the instrument, stretched his hands out, left and right: right to the pitch and left to the volume. I took his hands from behind and helped him. He started to play "Skylark". He had a very good ear, and he felt where to move his hands to get the sound: to lower them or to raise them. In the middle of this piece I thought that he could himself, independently, move his hands. So I took my hands off of his, and he completed the whole thing independently, by himself, with great success and with great applause following. He was very happy that he could play on this instrument all by himself.
Mattis: Incredible! You spoke to me yesterday about a polyphonic instrument; did it exist?
Theremin: Yes, I did make such an instrument. a
person could regulate one voice or at the same time could add two or three more voices which would be in some sort of correct
intervallic, I mean chordal, relationship in some natural pitch system. Well, I tried to make such an instrument, and indeed
it was convincing, because it playes a melody very precisely with
Mattis: Does this instrument still exist?
Theremin: I had the instrument in the university in a special place where I demonstrated it for my lectures. But then the university was reorganized and rooms reassigned. The instrument was left in a room for four years, where people could come and gradually dismantle it. So now it is in a completely dismantled and ruined condition at the university somewhere. After that I started working on a new instrument. The old instrument was made using "radio lamps" [vacuum tubes], but the new instrument I started making was based on semiconductors. The project was going well; it was partially completed when I had to clear out [of] the place where the instrument was located because there were other projects going on that were unrelated to music. The chairman of the physics department did not consider music to be a science, and felt that this should not be taking place at the university. And I had to vacate the room that I was occupying at the university.
Mattis: In what year was this?
Theremin: Approximately--I am afraid to say--in 1978. It was about 1978.
Mattis: What was the first musical destination of your machine? Was the purpose of the instrument to play the classical repertory, or did you share the preoccupations of the modern composers for new sounds and new usages?
Theremin: When I made the first instrument, with the first method of regulation, the character of the sound it could create surpassed all the abilities of all the instruments then in existence. So that's why I considered that composers should write new music for this new timbre, and that in addition to knowing traditional musical techniques, that they had to know new ones. So, in this respect, I thought that there would be progress in the world of instruments, as well as the world of composition.
Mattis: Then why at the first concerts, on Clara Rockmore's recording, and on last night's concert program [featuring Natalia Theremin] was classical music played almost exclusively?
Theremin: That is because there are so far no well-written compositions for the thereminvox. That's why in the concert [last night] there were mostly compositions written by good composers, or folksongs. There are some things written by the [modern] composers, but they were not popular. I can't say that they fully exploit the instrument. They were written to imitate old instruments, such as the violin, the voice, etc. So the repertoire that is used is mostly the repertoire written for other musical instruments.
Mattis: Tell me about your dance instrument, the Terpsitone.
Theremin: This is a platform that a person dances on. When the dancer's body is low, you hear the lowest pitch. When the dancer raiser her body, the pitch also goes up. It's also possible to dance without changing the sound. For instance, if the dancer raises one arm and lowers the other, there will be no change in pitch. But if the dancer raises both arms, then the pitch will go up.
Mattis: How about the loudness, the volume?
Theremin: If the dancer goes more forward, it gets louder. When she steps back, the sound gets quieter. I had a Terpsitone dance studio in New York. I had many pupils dancing there.
Mattis: Now I would like to ask you a few questions about the composer Edgard Varese.
Theremin: Some pieces by Edgard Varese could have been played, but I don't now remember our acquaintance. Sometimes we met, but I don't precisely remember. There were a lot of composers. Sometimes we met, in different places, let's say in the street or at concerts. There were many performances. Either the composers would come to my concerts, or I would go to hear the new compositions by the new composers. There we would meet. There were many, many composers; I'm afraid to mention the names of the composers.
Mattis: That's too bad, because I have very precise questions about them!
Theremin: I'm afraid to say anything about that.
Mattis: According to the memoirs of Louise Varese, you met Varese in New York. What year might that have been?
Theremin: I was in New York for nine years [sic: should be eleven, 1927-38]. I might have met him towards the beginning of my stay. I had concerts in New York many times, and people came to the concerts. We had gatherings of people who were interested in my work. Social get-togethers were organized; about 30-40 people would attend. All sorts of interesting composers and scientists, like Einstein, etc. would talk to me, and I talked to many of them. I can't enumerate them. There were some composers, but also some instrumentalists, violinists or cellists, who would meet with me and who were interested in new music.
Mattis: Edgard Varese came to you to ask you to build him an electronic cello. Do you remember that?
Theremin: I made my electronic cello, not only for Varese, but for all those who were interested. It was not just the instrument played with hands in the air. It was a different instrument, like a cello, that had a fingerboard. But instead of pressing down on strings, it was necessary just to place one's fingers in different places, thereby creating different pitches. I have photographs of the instrument. It was also called the thereminvox. There was one man who was very much interested in this instrument. He was the conductor Leopold Stokowski, who had ordered instruments especially for the Philadelphia Orchestra. I made ten instruments especially for Stokowski. They used it in concerts, and it created a great impression....
Mattis: In what year did you arrive in New York?
Theremin: At the end of 1929, beginning of the '30's: 31, 33 [sic: should be December 22, 1927].
Mattis: I thought that you came to New York in 1927 or 1928.
Theremin: Yes, approximately at the end of that time, at the end of 1929.
Mattis: Can you remember Edgard Varese? How did he look physically? Can you remember?
Theremin: No, I couldn't tell you. I met so many people. I did not see Varese much. I cannot remember it. It was so long ago, decades ago. More than sixty years have passed since that time; I don't remember. I remember many people, according to photographs and letters. I met a lot of people. I remember well a lot of my good students. I had a wonderful student Clara Rockmore, and also Lucie Rosen. These were the better ones whom I remember who worked in my studio. There was one man who was interested in the color of music, the connection between light and music, and that was Einstein. He asked-- He showed me that his wife played piano very well; he could play violin, and he tried to play the thereminvox. He asked me if he could use my studio; I had a big, big house that I rented in New York, at 37 West 54th Street.
Mattis: What repertory did you play with Einstein?
Theremin: Einstein, no Einstein was more interested in the connection between music and geometrical figures: not only color, but mostly triangles, hexagons, heptagons, different kinds of geometrical figures. He wanted to combine these into drawings. He asked whether he could have a laboratory in a small room in my large house, where he could draw. So I gave him a study, not very big. I found him a [woman] assistant, one of my co-workers who was a painter, to help him draw these sketches, and he would come and do his work. I saw him many times, very often. It was not the field that I was interested in, these geometrical figures. I can't say that from my point of view they [the figures] had a psychological effect on the colors of the music. He was there for a long time. All the walls were covered with these paintings, with these drawings. There was not enough room, and he wanted more room. So I found another big place. I got a room in my good friend's house, an American. He had a very large house, and I referred him to that house. He continued to work on these things there with my assistant, the painter. I saw him often, and we talked. As for him personally, Einstein was a physicist and theorist, but I was not a theorist--I was an inventor--so we did not have that much in common. I had much more kinship with someone like Vladimir Il'yich [Lenin], who was interested in how the whole world is created. Einstein was a theorist, so he knew all the formulas, etc. I cannot say that I was very much interested in him as a physicist.
Mattis: Varese came to you to ask you to build him an instrument for his piece Ecuatorial. Do you remember anything about that?
Theremin: I don't remember whether I had made an instrument for him. There was one man who was very much interested in my instruments: it was the chief conductor of the New York orchestra [sic: should be Philadelphia Orchestra], [Leopold] Stokowski, who had ordered instruments especially for the orchestra. I made ten instruments especially for Stokowski. It was a musical [instrument]; they used it in concerts, and it created a great impression. This was very interesting. As for Varese, I don't remember anything. I don't remember his musical activities at all.
Mattis: What works, which composers, did Stokowski play with your instruments?
Theremin: I have programs of the orchestra where he played different things. There were many of them. Sometimes there were compositions written by new composers and old composers for regular orchestra, and often the basses and cellos would be replaced in the orchestra by thereminvoxes. The bassists were interested in this, and in general there were many musical experiments conducted on timbre. I'm not going to get into this because it's very technical. With Stokowski I had a really good opportunity to work and think about new music.
Patrick Lemoine (interpreter): Do you remember what composers they played?
Theremin: I don't remember. I cannot remember now; I cannot tell you who the new composers were. There were many fashionable composers at that time in America. Some of them were alone-- Some of them made arrangements for orchestra. [indistinct] Great interest was shown for my instrument and for the new sound that could be used for the orchestra, and this [interest] was [shown especially] by Stokowski: he was the main conductor of a big symphony orchestra in New York. According to his order, five, I mean ten, instruments, thereminvoxes, were specially made that could produce stronger bass sounds. These instruments were made, and some composers arranged existing symphonies in order to incorporate this instrument; some parts of symphonies were arranged by American composers at that time. I cannot tell you their last names, but there were many young composers who were interested in this, and who were interested in having their compositions that used the new instruments be played by the New York orchestra.
Mattis: When Varese returned from New Mexico he tried in vain to contact you. He wrote you two letters, of which I have one here, dated 1941. [Presents letter.] Do you remember this letter; did you ever receive it?
Theremin: In 1941 I was already in a government institution where I could not write letters abroad, so I didn't receive this letter in 1941.
Mattis: So you have never seen this letter?
Theremin: I am afraid to say I don't know, because I don't have it now, and it might be that I have never seen it. [Reads letter.] At that time I was in a special place, so I had no opportunity to receive letters. I could receive them only after 1946.
Mattis: Can you tell us who is this man Mr. Fediushine [mentioned in the letter]?
Theremin: I don't know. I can't remember. I don't have any literature on that.
American composer Wallingford Riegger is reputed to have
Theremin: There were many composers, and I showed it to many composers,but I don't remember the names. I don't remember. Maybe he was my student; I don't remember this. There were many people in my studio; they were all studying. I had a 99-year lease: I rented a big house in New York at 37 West 54th Street, a six-storey house. My studio was there. Many students came there, and composers came to the place. I don't remember the names, but they were interested in the instruments. I showed them the instruments and gave them opportunities to play it, and so on, and so on. Everything took place during a nine-year [sic: should be eleven-year] period. I didn't write down the names: only the most world-famous ones. I have notes about them, Einstein among them, and composers-- [Joseph] Szigeti visited me; Szigeti, the famous violinist, was also there.
Mattis: I would
like to mention some other names, and elicit any thoughts
Theremin: I can prepare for next time, but I cannot answer you off the cuff. I can't remember them now. There were too many people, too many different composers. Sometimes I remember the composer's name, but I don't remember if he was at my place or not. I want to say that at that time I was mostly interested in questions of electronic music and timbre. There were many new questions at that time, so I was not so much interested in people and composers. They only impressed me after having learned the old science.
Mattis: Do you remember Nicolas Slonimsky?
Theremin: Maybe. I don't remember. It's a familiar name to me--I might even know him--but I don't remember.
Mattis: How about Henry Cowell?
Theremin: I recognize all these names. No, I am afraid I don't remember very much about him. Stokowski I remember very well, because I made instruments for him. As for the rest, maybe we talked casually. The composers knew very little about acoustics, so I did not talk to them much.
Mattis: Please tell me about Stokowski.
Theremin: About Stokowski I can say, yes, I remember him. He was of course a great conductor. He was very interested in technical resources, of course: not in the electronics specifically, but in what new sounds, what new timbres, what new characters of sound could be obtained. So of course I can tell you all the theory I know, but this may not be relevant now. I have some notes about this theory of new timbres and about musical acoustics. I delived lectures at the university. There are many things that composers know very little about. I was not very interested in them, because they were going in a different direction [indistinct] in relation to new musical resources. This was as much [in the realm of] melodic construction as of timbre and the use of chords. This was all worked out by me based on the new musical resources.
Mattis: In Paris did you ever meet George Antheil?
Theremin: I don't remember.
Lemoine: What other composers did you meet in New York?
Theremin: I'm afraid to say. It's very hard for me to say.
Mattis: Now I would like to ask you about the artistic world. Did you know the Futurists?
Mattis: Neither the Italians nor the Russians?
Theremin: No. No. There were a lot of different people with whom I had to talk. There were a lot of societies that would invite me, where I would answer questions, but I don't remember. You can imagine. For example, now we are having a meeting, and we are talking now. You are asking me questions, and I am answering. And I don't know your names. I don't know to whom I am speaking. There were many such interviews, and then you ask, "Who was there?" I'm meeting a lot of people in these three or four days that I'm here [in Bourges], and I'm not writing down their names. I don't remember who they are or what their names are: "He's a director, or he is an assistant, what's his name?" Even now, I don't know [either of your names]. And, of course, in America I was not as accurate in recording people's names. If it was a very famous person I may have remembered him, and might remember him now.
There were a lot of good people who were praised, but who also had enemies who would say derogatory things about them, who did not agree with them, who would say, "He's an awful composer." Some said one [fellow] was a good composer, and others said he was an awful composer. So there were all different kinds of people. I was very interested, and I talked to them. There were many things I talked about with them, and from those conversations I thought I should find new ways of thinking, so that composers would not [have to] use the old viewpoints that had been used in art.
Mattis: Do you remember Joseph Schillinger?
Theremin: Schillinger, yes, I knew him. I had many conversations with him, but I cannot say anything about his work. I recognize his name; he was famous, after all.
Mattis: You worked together, and you wrote a composition together [First Airphonic Suite for RCA Theremin and Orchestra, 1929].
Theremin: Yeah, he was a composer, but from my point of view he was one of many interesting, good people who were interested in old-fashioned ideas and viewpoints that were not suitable for the development of musical art.
Mattis: I would like to ask you about your life in New York. Could you speak first in general terms about your life in New York?
Theremin: Yes, of course. Do you want it now? Do you want my story now?
Lemoine (interpreter): Yes. When you were in New York, how did you live, where did you live, and what were you doing in New York in general?
Theremin: You have to tell me what you want to know because I can tell you about my musical and theoretical side or my personal life. My personal life has to do with my personal pleasures: with my friends, some little things with family affairs. So if you want to talk about family affairs, we can talk about the people that were close to me, and so on, or I can tell you about my work and the people who shared it with me.
Mattis: I'm interested in both aspects of your life, absolutely.
Theremin: First my personal life. It was known, as everything else was known. In my personal life I was interested very much in different physicists. At the same time, I was very interested in the people who were very close to me. I was quite close to my parents, to my sister, and so on. Also, I could love people whom I liked. I fell in love for the first time (of course, not in New York) with a girl whom I really liked when I was three years old. That was my first love.
Lemoine: We want to know about your life in New York.
Theremin: I can tell you many things that occurred that may have significance, etc. I can tell you all the things that strongly influenced my musical life. I can tell you all kinds of things, but they may sound random. I can tell them quickly. I won't tell you about the love that happened when I was three years old, but I can tell you about my first marriage.
Lemoine: Where was this, in New York?
Theremin: I'll tell you all about it, in New York and everything.
Mattis: Please tell me about it.
was born in 1896, so it was in 1921 for the first time. I had a colleague, Constantinov, who had a very attractive sister.
And so she became my wife, and we got married when I was working in Leningrad at the Ioffe Institute for Physics and
Technology. She was very attractive. We were in Russia. She had general interests, not music. She was much younger than I
was. This was in 1921. I was already 26 [sic] years old at that time, and she was probably 20 or a little more than 19. Katia
Constantinova. After that I had a lot of work, very interesting work. I had a lab. I was the inventor of this instrument, the
first instrument. She was mnot interested in music much. I was the first in the world to invent a television device; this was
in 1926. Then I was sent abroad. I was sent to the international conference in Frankfurt-am-Maine. I went alone, and she was
left behind. She joined me in Paris, where I went next, and we stayed with my relatives. After that I went to America, and
she joined me there. So I was with Katia. It was a difficult time. We had a lot of work to do. We did not have children, on
principle. It's not that we didn't want them, but we
Mattis: Did you have any children with this woman?
Theremin: No. We didn't want children on principle. Then I'll tell you what happened afterwards. After that, it happened that she would visit me once a week. One fine day, a young man came to me, and he said, "You know" (he gave me his calling card), "I have a request to make of you and of your wife, too. We love each other. Please let us marry each other." This was not quite pleasant for me, but I said, "Of course, I cannot forbid-- Well, in the Soviet Union we have freedom [divorce is legal]." But I told him that things could not happen in this way. So he left, and I felt terrible. I tried to reach my wife, but the phones weren't working well. After a while, maybe three days later, I received from my Embassy--because at that time I was working under the leadership of our Consulate--they sent me a magazine that was published by German representatives of a fascist organization in America. This fascist organization wrote that Theremin-- In this article it was written that "the wife of Theremin is sympathetic to our work, and we accepted her into our society, but Theremin doesn't want to pay money, because he is probably a Jew, and he is afraid to give money. That's why he won't become a member of our society." Well, there was such a magazine. At the Embassy, the people said, "We cannot allow this." Then in a few days, they said something more definite. The Embassy called me, and demanded that I get a divorce from her. They called me and gave me my first divorce without her [presence or consent]. I talked to her on the telephone about it. She said, "It's my friends, but I was never a member of any such society," and that's it. This was my first divorce. She continued to live there; she continued to study at that institute. I would talk to her sometimes, but I didn't believe her. So this was my first divorce.
Of course, at the same time, I continued constructing musical instruments, and this too preoccupied my mind. Composers would come by and ask about my wife. So I told you a little bit. Then there's more to tell--
Mattis: Are you Jewish?
Mattis: Do you have anything more to add about your personal life in New York?
Theremin: There are many interesting things connected with my work, with the composers I had to see. But anyway, I was lonely. I sometimes called my wife on the telephone, but I couldn't--I couldn't get her attention. Well, we didn't really argue, but I felt lonely that I had no wife. So, I had my studio, where I was conducting many studies on a new instrument which I invented, an instrument for dancing. The instrument for dancing was called the "Terpsitone." It was in my studio, this instrument. It's important to talk about this instrument, bucause it required a great deal of work. It's a dancing musical instrument--much like a thereminvox, but for dancing.
There I had a very beautiful student, a black woman. She danced well. And it happened that we liked each other very much. When I mentioned in my Consulate that I liked a black woman, they said, "O.K., marry her." So we went to the Consulate, where we were married, and this was my marriage #1 [sic] to the black woman. Her name was Lavinia Williams. She lived with me, etc. She participated in some dancing works, about which I should talk because I had done much work on the dancing musical instrument. So, when I left America (we did not have children either)--I had to leave America--she was to be sent in a few weeks. I went on a special-- Well, so she stayed in America.
Mattis: Do you know what happened to her afterwards?
Theremin: She stayed there. We wrote to each other for a while, but now I don't know.
Natalia Theremin: She got married, and has two daughters who were ballerinas and performed in a major New York theater--I don't know its name.
Theremin: She married another man. Not immediately. Six years after I left.
Mattis: Is she alive?
Theremin: Yes, she is.
Natalia Theremin: She has been dancing, lately even. Five years ago she was still dancing. The wife-- She has her own studio in the Hawaiian Islands [sic: should be Haiti].
Theremin: There were many magazines she used to send. We had a good relationship.
Mattis: You divorced her?
Natalia Theremin: No. There is still no divorce. She was planning to come to the Soviet Union, but it happened that she didn't come. They have no divorce still.
Theremin: Then I came here on special assignment--
Mattis: Where is here?
Theremin: --to the Soviet Union. After some time, I had the opportunity to marry again. So I married again in 1947 or '46. Then, I had two children with her, born together [twins]. One was older than the other by 40 minutes. One is older, Lena [Helena], and the second one is Natasha [Natalia]. Here she is.
Mattis: Where is Lena?
Theremin: She is in Moscow. I have two grandchildren there. And I have two children, two daughters. This is my daughter.
Mattis: So you were married three times.
Theremin: Yes. My wife [Maria] passed away in 1970.
With many thanks to Olivia Mattis for permission to reproduce this article.
Tagged: Leon Theremin