February 22, 1999

More Information:
Eastman Office of Communications, 585-274-1050

ROCHESTER, NY – The ethereal sound of the theremin ¾ used memorably in the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still and in The Beach Boys ’60s hit Good Vibrations will be heard at the Eastman School of Music in March when the world’s leading virtuoso on the instrument visits.

Lydia Kavina, the last protégé of the instrument’s inventor, Leon Theremin, comes to Rochester from her home in Moscow. A one-hour recital and two 75-minute lecture/demonstrations will be open to the public. The recital is at 3 p.m. Monday, March 13, in Howard Hanson Hall. The lecture/demonstrations begin at 8:35 a.m. and at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, March 14, in Room 120 at the School, 26 Gibbs St.

Considered the world’s first electronic instrument, the theremin was invented shortly after the Russian Revolution in response to a call by communist leader Lenin for new uses for electricity. Lev Sergeyevich Termen (known as Leon Theremin in the West) subsequently was sent abroad by his government to show the world his scientific marvel. In 1927 he arrived in the United States, where he remained for 11 years.

The original instruments, which have been described as sounding like a cross between a cello and a musical saw, resemble an early radio console: in other words, a box filled with vacuum tubes. One antenna rises straight from the top of the box, while another, shaped like a loop, protrudes from the side. Pitch and volume are controlled by moving the hands through the air near the two antennae, without actually touching the instrument.

The theremin evolved from a curiosity discussed in scientific journals to a classical musical instrument played by serious performers. One, Clara Rockmore, took the theremin to the Carnegie Hall stage in the 1930s, as well as on tour: She performed Bach, Tchaikovsky and others with the Rochester Civic Orchestra at a critically acclaimed concert in 1938. "Rockmore played this queer ether wave boxed affair so that the audience in the Eastman Theatre, however curious some of its members might have been, had cause for real musical satisfaction," the Democrat and Chronicle reported.

Edgard Varèse, Bohuslav Martinu and Percy Grainger were among the first important composers to write works specifically for the theremin. RCA produced 500 of the instruments in 1929.

Leon Theremin disappeared in 1938 and remained a virtual prisoner of the Soviet Union until 1989, when his reemergence in the West at age 93 sparked a resurgence of interest in the theremin. Olivia Mattis, now a visiting professor of musicology at Eastman, had the opportunity to interview Theremin in France in 1989 and again in California in 1991. In 1997, she organized the First International Theremin Festival, which took place in Portland, Maine.

Lydia Kavina, the granddaughter of Leon Theremin’s first cousin, began studying with her famous relative in 1976 at the age of 9. She first appeared in concert at age 14 and since then has given about 600 performances on the theremin in Europe, the United States, Japan and South America. She studied composition at the Tchaikovsky State Conservatory in Moscow, where she graduated in 1992 and completed post-graduate study in 1997. Some of her own works are featured on Music from the Ether, her 1999 CD of classical works written for theremin. Appearing with Kavina at Eastman will be Rochester-based composer and pianist Alejandro Tkaczevski.

Today, solid-state versions of the theremin are being produced by several companies, including Big Briar, founded by Robert Moog, well-known for another contribution to electronic music, the synthesizer. (In Rochester, Kavina will be performing on an Ethervox, which is a MIDI-based theremin designed and built by Moog.) A search on the Internet reveals any number of Web sites created by enthusiasts (for example, Just as Led Zeppelin and The Beach Boys did in the ’60s, rock bands of today including Phish and Portishead make use of the instrument’s haunting sounds.

At the dawn of the 21st century, a whole new generation of fans are heralding Leon Theremin’s 80-year-old invention as the "instrument of the future."


Note: Photos of Lydia Kavina are available upon request.