Rosalyn Tureck on the Theremin (1996) - from the Archives

Rosalyn Tureck on the Theremin

Rosalyn Tureck 1996

When I was ten years old, my Russian teacher took me to Orchestra Hall in Chicago, where we lived, to hear a concert presented by Leon Theremin, the great Russian investor of electronic instruments. He was on tour in the United States, and on that evening he presented a program of music on his electronic instruments. My teacher was Sophia Brilliant-Liven, a distinguished pianist and teacher, an emigré from St. Petersburg, Russia. Famous in Europe and her own country, she knew all the active Russian musicians of the time. The great Russian performers who came to Chicago to perform would unfailingly come to visit her. She knew Theremin, and this was the reason why she attended his performance, and somehow she decided to bring this ten-year old student with her. We went backstage afterwards to greet Theremin. The presentation of instruments and sounds made a tremendous impression upon me and I took it upon myself to walk away from the backstage company onto the stage to examine the instruments and the equipment. I was overwhelmed by the height of what I later came to know as speakers, and impressed with the yards and yards of thick black cables on the floor of the stage.

Six years later, I arrived in New York, having received a scholarship at the Juillard Graduate School. In my first week at Juillard, I saw a notice on the bulletin board announcing that Theremin was in New York and offering one scholarship to study his electronic instruments with him. My impression of his instruments was unforgettable so I went down immediately for an audition and won the scholarship. I studied with him for an entire year, and it is still little known that I made my debut at the age of seventeen at Carnegie Hall, playing a Theremin electronic instrument in a program that Theremin presented in New York that Spring, 1932.

I studied both the instrument that is known as the 'Theremin' and a keyboard instrument, which was similar to what is now known as a synthesiser. I also gained knowledge of the marvellous instrument we referred to as the 'dance platform' that Theremin had devised; this worked by control of the entire body movement, rather than solely hand and finger movements as on the 'Theremin' thereby making it both a dance and music instrument. A dance performance took place on that instrument that evening at Carnegie Hall. Theremin had devised string electronic instruments as well, and another feature of the program was a quartet of electronic strings with dynamic range, substituting for a full orchestra. I vividly remember that just at the end of my big solo, a bass note went completely out of control, making an unearthly noise. Theremin dashed out from backstage and began fiddling with the dials - these were located on a board above the keyboard. My year with Theremin was memorable in many ways; chiefly it cemented my early interest in new sounds and instruments.

At that time Clara Rockmore became involved with playing the 'Theremin'. She had been a successful concert violinist, but developed some trouble with her hands and could not go on playing the violin. On discovering the Theremin she turned to that and she brought an extraordinary talent, musicianship and adaptability to this instrument. I shall never forget her joint recital with Paul Robeson at the Town Hall in New York. Clara played Bach solo violin sonatas on the Theremin and was able to do double-stops on the instrument, a marvellous technical feat. Lucy Bigelow-Rosen was Theremin's chief patroness, and at that time she financed his operation and activities in New York. She also indulged in some performances on the Theremin.

It was a terrible tragedy that Theremin was abducted back to Russia - whether forcibly or gently is still unclear - for that put an end to this activity with his marvellous new instruments. I believe that the whole future of music and electronic instruments would have been different had he not been prevented for living in the States where he could have had all the artistic freedom and material means to develop his ideas and have them spread, as they deserved.

In my opinion there has been a vacuum since the thirties in the development of electronic instruments, notwithstanding varied forays into various styles of electronic instruments. I never lost my interest in electronic instruments. The programs that I presented for the society I created for the advancement of contemporary music programs, Composers of Today, which took place annually through the years 1949 to 1953 included what I was told was the first electronic and tape music program in the United States, in 1952.

I have been performing on the Moog ever since the late sixties and have performed on it in public and several times on film as well. In the famous film The Joy of Bach, of which I was a chief consultant, I performed a sequence playing the Bach Gigue from the English Suite in G minor on the clavichord, harpsichord, piano and Moog. Bob Moog presented me with his latest model, in the eighties, which I still own. On changing my residence from New York to Oxford, England, I sent this Moog to be housed in my archives in the Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University. In the activities of the Tureck Bach Institute, opened in 1968, headquartered and active for twenty years in New York City, I put on three weeks of performances and lectures every year. Each year I devoted one evening of the twelve programs to Bach and contemporary times, and in each of those evenings I presented electronic instruments. One evening was devoted entirely to the Moog, its development and its attributes. Herbert Deutsch, an assistant to Moog, was the chief lecturer and he brought with him the first Moog ever built. On that evening I performed the F minor Sinfonia of J.S. Bach on the harpsichord, piano and Moog. I also created and directed a film for a national broadcast for CBS in New York which I entitled Bach on the Frontier of the Future. Having written and read the script I also performed J.S. Bach, Chopin, and other composers on the clavichord, harpsichord, piano, and Moog. I have continued my interest in the ongoing developments in electronic music and instruments such as the current extensive activities at IRCAM, MIT, Stamford and Athens, as well as the commercial electronic instrument makers.

For years I deplored the fact that so few people in the active music world had heard of Theremin and of his visionary instrumental productions. I have followed the development of the synthesiser with enormous interest, investigating and playing new versions successively through the years. Although I think it still has some ways to go. I believe the synthesiser is at last beginning to approach the status of a musical instrument that has a rich promise for composition and performance. Composers and performers need to grow up to its full potential in order for the synthesiser to take its place in the mainstream of art music. I believe that the Theremin instruments, having introduced an entirely new sound potential, are endowed with a fresh creative and recreative capacity. It is with the greatest delight that I see that, at least, his chief instrument has been re-discovered, at the end of this century, late but not lost.

I have also been directly involved in the development of the electronic piano that the Baldwin Piano Company sponsored. The inventor and scientific technician for this instrument was seismologist Dr Hugo Beniof, who was associated for many years with the California Institute of Technology. We met when I was twenty-three years old, at the time when I gave my first all Bach series at CalTech, and we remained lifelong friends. Beniof, who was the inventor of the Beniof seismograph, had a second love, and that was electronic musical instruments. At the time I met him, he had created only one note electronically on a piano, and that was middle C. He had also by that time completed work on an electronic cello, which was extremely successful. I recognised it as an improvement over the Theremin cello because he was able to produce electronic sound on the cello including their gut strings. Theremin, as I remember, did not have actual strings on his electronic so-called string instruments. But Beniof's cello retained the string which contributed the rich gut sound that this string instrument is associated with and which contributes to its individuality. Beniof's work, however, on the piano, at that time, amounted to only a single note. When he found that I was extremely interested in electronic instruments and sound we formed a kind of liaison, and consequently for twenty years I worked with him on his electronic piano. I stopped off at his house in Pasadena at least once or twice a year in the midst of my concert tours; I also spent several weeks at a time in many summers living at his house, helping him to develop the kind of tone and detailed pianistic characteristics that a concert artist expects from a top level concert piano. We worked very hard on the damping of tones and the sustaining pedal. These were among the most crucial features to achieve. Perhaps the most difficult aspect in reproducing proper piano sound in an electronic piano is centred in the capacity of the acoustic piano to damp the sound. In those twenty years Hugo Beniof made enormous strides in this direction. Tragically he died before we considered the piano fully finished. It was nearing the end however, and we may indeed have had a magnificent instrument on a high artistic level within a few more years. A desirable practical side benefit was the fact that tuning was no longer required.

Very shortly after Hugo's death, a new president for Baldwin appeared and the company decided to launch the piano publicly. A great deal of publicity announced its initial appearances. I was distressed to see the claims made for it. Firstly the piano was not quite finished by the standards of Beniof and myself. Secondly the great claim for its merit was the fact that it could play louder than a whole symphony orchestra, and, in fact, a pianist was chosen to perform a concerto in the Hollywood Bowl in order to demonstrate its capacity for tremendous sound. Beniof would have been heartbroken to find that quantity of sound was claimed to be the great merit of the piano. We were not interested in developing a louder sound than a hundred piece orchestra; we were interested in developing a piano sound with the greatest flexibility, admittedly with a great range but with the highest standard of beautiful piano tone, and also a finely honed sensitive action. These aims were not emphasised in the promotion of the piano. The aggressive publicity campaign lasted only a few years, and the piano faded out of sight. At the time that this first promotion appeared I wrote to the chief technician of Baldwin, explaining the true condition of the piano saying that it was not quite ready for public launching. I received a reply from him, saying that he agreed with me but there was nothing he could do about it. Since the demise of this piano, Yamaha has developed an instrument with electronic features, as have several other manufacturers, but their aim does not seem to be the creation of a concert instrument for great art music. So Hugo's is another instrument of enormous promise which has been aborted. For a long time I thought that Theremin's instruments were in the same situation. Now that the Theremin has begun to be discovered, perhaps Hugo's piano may one day also be properly finished. In my most indulgent moods I like to think that there may be a time when one or several geniuses will appear who can continue the great work of Beniof and of Theremin.

©Rosalyn Tureck 1996