Lydia Kavina talks theremins and Jura Unbound

Joining author Sean Michaels at The Skinny's Unbound night will be Lydia Kavina, the world's leading thereminist, grand-niece and protegé of its master inventor. We speak to her about Léon Termen's curious legacy

Feature by Aidan Ryan | 19 Aug 2015

In one of the early video recordings of a theremin performance, a soft-eyed Russian man in a double-breasted blazer pulls (and pushes) a keening vibrato sound out of what many scientific minds would then have thought the Aether, his right hand seeming to tug on a tense thread too fine to see, his left to play an invisible caisa drum or to animate a marionette. The effect of the whole is not unlike certain early film interpretations of Victor Frankenstein calling down lightning life into his monster.

The man is Lev Sergeyevich Termen, sometimes known as Léon Theremin, playing his own invention, then (circa 1928) called the thereminvox; he's controlling it with the position of his hands in relation to two capacitors (called antennae), the right controlling pitch and the left volume. He never touches any part of the instrument, and the viewer's attention rushes straining into this absence, finding in the combination of sound and delicate, highly concentrated movement a proto-art mixing music and gesture, an almost-dance. It was this, along with his charisma, and the eerie aetherial sounds of his invention, sometimes mistaken for a human voice, sometimes as foreign as whale song, that captivated concert halls at the height of the Jazz Age and sent an already extraordinary man on an extraordinary journey.

Sean Michaels, a friend of The Skinny from the paper's early days, chronicles this in his semi-fictional Giller Prize-winning debut novel, Us ConductorsMichaels will be reading from his book at the Famous Speigeltent at 9pm on Sun 23 August, part of Jura Unbound at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. But the theremin has come a long way since 1928 – joining Michaels that night will be Lydia Kavina, the world's leading thereminist, Termen's grand-niece and protegé, who started studying under the master-inventor at 9 years old.

"The musician can be limited, but not the instrument" – Lydia Kavina

Since then she's retraced Termen's tour of the world's most esteemed venues and reached new audiences (she's collaborated with Howard Shore and Tom Waits; you might recognise her on the soundtracks of The Machinist or Ed Wood), and pushed the instrument – and the idea – further, into the 21st century. Looking forward to her festival performance, Kavina spared some time to talk about her life and work, learning from Termen, and what makes the theremin so fascinating for casual listeners and forward-thinking artists today.

Sean Michaels tells us he was drawn to Lev's story because it was true but sounds like a collection of fibs – and that this sense of almost-unreality is tied in with the instrument itself, associated with unreal eerie sounds. What kind of a guy was Termen?

He was a really great guy; everyone who met him for even one day kept the memory for their whole life because he was very special. When I knew Termen he was very old – over 80. The main thing that I was impressed by was that he was young-looking – he kept a very romantic, young soul until the end of his life. He was always inventing and working until his very last days. He was very kind, he was very delicate, he was witty. Almost every sentence he would say would have a joke in it. He was a very optimistic person.

Even in his old age he still wanted to marry. He had already had three wives [who had] passed away, but he was still looking for a new one! You know it sounds funny, but he was actually very much able to do so. Because as I said, in his old he age he didn't look like an old man, he was very healthy, very quick... So that's probably what comes to my mind. 

You also possess the world's last terpsitone [an instrument controlled with the entire body] made for you by Termen in 1978. It seems like a step further than the theremin, fusing music and dance, not just to setting dance to music but to have them be one and the same. Really a radical vision.

The original idea of the theremin was that music can be controlled – that anything can be controlled by motions in the air; this was understood by Termen as the revolution in the art. The terpsitone [represents the extreme] of his experimental thinking.

I’m actually a drummer, so playing music for me has always been a physical, tactile thing. But I guess this is in a less obvious way true for most musicians, and that’s what makes the theremin stand out, watching someone play it – that there’s no touch, no physical contact.  Do you feel you relate to the music differently because there isn’t that tactile element?

It is absolutely different… there is nothing, nothing similar with other instruments, in terms of connecting with the instrument. In most instruments there's a lot of physical memory due to the physical contact, a lot of things that you can do formally, without thinking. You can sit at the piano or sit at the drums and play and talk at the same time or think about something else. On stage for the important concerts you are really involved in the music, but it is not the rule.

For the theremin it is the rule. You cannot play formally. You need this high concentration, on the music, on the sounds [in order to] even start to develop your playing. The concentration on the music comes first.  It's like swimming in the music. Without having imagined the sounds first you cannot produce them from the theremin. You have to hear the sounds in your mind first, then you will be able to start to find them on the theremin.

It is very similar to singing in many ways. Because the singer orients where to find the sound… he has to use his ear for music to hear the sound to hear the song in his mind, in his head, and then he will be able to sing it out.

Are there different schools teaching different techniques, or does this diversity of sound on the theremin come from people teaching themselves? 

The method of playing or teaching or learning the theremin is developing. With the mass production of the theremin and the development of theremin schools, the method of playing has developed as well. Lev Termen had his technique – he learned a lot from Clara Rockmore. So when I started I learned the way of moving my hands from Lev Termen. But he wasn’t a professional player; he was a very good player, he was very very musical, and his playing is absolutely charming and wonderful, with wonderful expression, but he never played professionally. He never met the problems of playing with the hand, like overplaying. So his playing technique was kind of an adaptation.

When I started playing a lot I had much trouble with the pain in my hands. And I struggled with it for many years, until I learned of the videos of Clara in the 90s. Her technique was so energy-saving and so good that it allowed her to play even into her old age. The method is developing; ideally it is the best to be able to have different techniques, for different pieces, occasions, acoustics, venues.  I would use different techniques by changing from one [type of theremin] to another – each instrument has its own spaces, its own disabilities. Sometimes I play with the fingers together, sometimes I play with the hand open. 

Clara is quoted as saying that “The thereminist has to play the rests as well as the notes.” You can see this, watching performance videos. But it is also reminiscent of what Miles Davis once said – “It’s not about the notes you play; it’s about the notes you don’t play.”  These sound like similar ideas, and the theremin was invented in the Jazz Age, in 1928 – is there a jazz-theremin connection?

Well you know the theremin is not limited to any kind of music. The musician can be limited, but not the instrument. There are a lot of jazz musicians who play jazz on the theremin – for example Pamelia Kurstin. Pamelia Kurstin is an American who lives in Austria now and she's been playing since around 1997. She was originally the best jazz bass player, but when she discovered this instrument she said “I want to play the walking bass on the theremin.”  And at that stage, the end of the 1990s, it was absolutely unbelievable to see someone turning the theremin the other way around, to play the pitch with the left hand and then to develop the plucking on the right hand, for getting this staccato.  So that’s what Pameia Kurstin did, and she’s revolutionary in this. She can play the melodies and improvisation as well as the walking bass, of course, but the walking bass is really impressive.

In your TedX talk in Ghent, you said that the instrument is sensitive to your emotional state, not just your hand position.

If you listen to an older recording of someone playing the theremin, you can normally identify the player, because everyone has their own style, their own vision, imagination, musical experiences, which will be reproduced in their theremin playing. And of course under different emotional conditions the visions will be different as well.  That is why my interpretation of a piece may never repeat itself, you know. On each new occasion it will be different.

With techniques still developing, with people able to play the walking bass on the theremin, with more interest in electronic music generally, where do you think this instrument and its practitioners are heading?

I think there are two ways of developing the theremin and both are very important. The first way is the development of the theremin in classical pieces, as a classical instrument, let’s say like a violin. And the other is the development of the space controller – so the theremin as a way of changing or controlling art in space. You can play the theremin or an instrument like the theremin and control not just sound, but light, or pictures – or smell!

Lydia Kavia will join Sean Michaels onstage at The Famous Speigeltent in St. Andrew's Square at 9pm, Sun 23 August 2015 for a free event celebrating The Skinny's 10th birthday, part of Jura Unbound