Theremins were some of the first electronic instruments, and remain possibly the coolest. They are operated entirely without touch, and were responsible for the majority of 50s B-movie soundtracks. What's more, they were invented by a quintessential mad Russian scientist, who was also responsible for a bugging device that went unnoticed in the US Ambassador's office for seven years! I spoke with the head of Moscow's Theremin Centre, Andrey Smirnof (above), in advance of a talk he's giving at Goldsmiths, as part of the free Future of Sound AV event on Tuesday. Check it out.
Could you tell us a bit about Leon Theremin (below), and the invention of the Theremin?
As I understand Leon Theremin’s personality, he was a kind of alien-child playing in a sandbox on a global playground. Like any eternal child, Theremin was always under supervision. As long as he was supervised by his father the lawyer, his mother the musician, “Papa” Abram Ioffe the Supreme Essence (a physics professor), strong women, Big Brother or a careful wife he was safe. And each time he went out of his sandbox - he was lost and punished. I don't know if he really understood political or social regulations and relations.
He was always ‘falling down from the Moon’ - to the US from emerging 1920s Soviet Russia, to totalitarian 1930s Soviet Russia from the US (and on to the GULAG labour camps), from the GULAG to KGB secret institutes (quite a separate ‘country’) from KGB ‘paradise’ into the bog of Soviet Russia in the 70s.
I love Theremins myself - my housemate made one once! And there's this video of some guy playing the Super Mario theme tune (incidentally, as if he's conducting an choir of felines). What do you think makes them so special amongst electronic musical instruments?
As for me I am not really a big fan of classical Theremin. I am much more interested in its applications in experimental interactive music and art developing and using in practice special digital Theremin-sensor systems.
Among dozens of amateur (and even professional) Theremin players visiting our centre I know just a few people who really can play. Classical Theremin is a very complicated instrument: to play it well (at least in tune) one needs to practice as much as on violin, spending years in rehearsals. This is not a drawback however, but a feature which makes this instrument not really “electronic” (as in, digital). Musical Electronics gives us absolute precision and as a result – total standardization. This is not the case with a Theremin.
He also invented TV interlacing (a technique for reducing image flicker still used in many TVs today) and the world’s first drum machine, right?
He has built one of the first Russian practical TV systems, although he didn’t really invent it. There were numerous Russian patents and developments in the realm of TV since the 19th Century.
He also created one of the first known rhythm machines – the Rhythmicon. Although even in this case he has developed ideas of Henry Cowell as well as some popular and patented 1920s technical ideas.
Do you think the age of the inventor as an individual is over now, with the advent of major technology companies?
No, not at all.
I am very much involved in the research of Russian history from 1910 to 1930 and I have numerous examples of how in the ‘10s and ‘20s creative individuals were organizing creative networks, working very successfully on absolutely fantastic ideas and practical projects. These networks were ruined during the process of official centralisation and unification during the establishment of the totalitarian state.
We know very well what happened next. Fast, violent and successful industrialization in the 1950s countered by a general apathy and lack of creative professionals produced few great achievements outside of physics and the nuclear bomb. Perhaps I should take into consideration the last ten years (and perhaps the next decade) as a continuation of the same stupid tradition.
Of course this example is not really correct since we can’t compare Soviet and modern social and political systems. But learning from history I know for sure that any process of global centralization and unification will lead to the growth of creative artistic opposition. And also what is nice in the recent technology is that it’s extremely accessible even to individuals. Somehow I am looking forward to changes. The contradiction of corporate power and individual creativity will definitely lead to some new balance and changing infrastructures.
Lydia Kavina, Leon Theremin's neice, playing Claire de Lune
What other music projects have you worked on recently?
In brief, I am totally busy now with my historical research which is developing extremely well. From other hand – I am working on the further development of my theremin-sensor systems and several related artistic projects, my own as well as collaborative with other composers and artists.