Most of us never got to know Leon Theremin (Lev Termen) or hear him play live. But we can take in his great grandson continuing the tradition of playing his invention – and Peter Theremin’s music is just as hauntingly human.
The Theremin has a special role in music history and the birth of electronic sound. Its sounds were among the first to suggest that electronic, not only acoustic, instruments could be expressive, that its electrical utterances could be like a human voice. It’s history is bound up with the history of US-Soviet relations, and the shaky relationship of electronics to espionage (and, in turn, the Communist sphere’s oscillating position on how acceptable electronic music would be). And is if that weren’t enough, the instrument also inspired Bob Moog to create synths, forever altering the course of the synth’s evolution.
But even with so many other choices now, there’s something uniquely pure and arresting about the Theremin’s sound and dead-simple design. And so among various international artists and in particular Russians carrying on that tradition, Peter Theremin (Петр Термен) is the one who literally carries on the inventor’s name. His music lives up to that, and then there’s the fact that he unmistakably carries some of the same DNA.
I got to here Peter play most recently last week at Moscow’s Synthposium, within walking distance of a lot of Theremin history in the Russian capital (not to mention the US Embassy where Maestro Lev once bugged the US Ambassador’s office, Trojan Horse style. (We really need to build one of these in a workshop. Anyone tried that?)
That performance is online:
“The Swan” as played by Clara Rockmore is one of my favorite Theremin performances ever, and Peter comes pretty darn close in his rendition for BBC Music:
Following his VKontakte page is the best way to dig through his music, if you don’t mind a little Russian text here and there – a login isn’t even needed. (VK is a social network mostly popular in Russia, where it’s based.)
His TEDx talk covers the history of the instrument (in Russian but with English subtitles):
Russian search engine Yandex posted this beautiful chamber music piece with Peter’s performance:
Oh yeah, and here’s what Peter’s all-Theremin booth at Synthposium was like … in fast forward!
Just be careful using this instrument to serenade the love of your life, you know?