A wonder called the theremin

A wonder called the theremin

YP junior reporters meet a world-class musician playing a unique instrument

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During a special workshop, Russian musician Lydia Kavina shows YP junior reporters how to play the theremin - an instrument invented by one of her relatives in the early 20th century -  without ever touching a string or key.
During a special workshop, Russian musician Lydia Kavina shows YP junior reporters how to play the theremin - an instrument invented by one of her relatives in the early 20th century - without ever touching a string or key.
Photos: K Y Cheng
The theremin is an unusual instrument. You can play it without touching it. Two antennae generate an electromagnetic field and sense the position of the player's hands. One antenna is vertical and controls the frequency; the other is horizontal and controls the volume.

The theremin is one of the very first electronic instruments. It was invented by Russian Professor Leon Theremin in the 1920s.

Four Young Post junior reporters spoke to the grand-daughter of Theremin's cousin, Lydia Kavina. Kavina started playing the theremin at age nine under the inventor's direction. She is one of the world's leading performing musicians on the instrument.

Holly Leung: The theremin is an electronic instrument with a unique sound. Some people say "science ruined music". Do you agree?

Lydia Kavina: The theremin is a bridge between traditional acoustic instruments and electronic instruments. Electronic music lovers may find classical music boring, while fans of classical music may say electronic music is noisy. The theremin brings the two together somehow. It is a sensitive instrument that responds to small movements with different sounds. Tsau Jin Cheng: What style or genre of music do you perform?

LK: I was classically trained so I often play classical composi/tions. But I do play all types of music from movie scores to rock music and jazz.

TJC: What were some of the challenges you had to overcome when learning the theremin?

LK: It can be a challenge to find ways to make the theremin sound different. Usually, people classify the theremin as a "lyrical" and "sentimental" instrument. But it can be versatile if played with different techniques. So I always ask myself, "how can I find new ways of playing the instrument?"

Sanchez Lo: What advice would you give to aspiring musicians?

LK: It is a hard profession, but if you can't live without music, then you know you should be a musician. There are other occupations which you can learn more easily and make more money with. As a musician you have to spend endless hours training. But music is indispensable to our world. It opens up emotions and can express things that cannot be expressed with words.

Rachel Cheng: How did you become a musician?

LK: It wasn't really a decision I took. My family wanted me to become a musician. I started composing when I was still a child.

Holly Leung: What was your famous relative's influence on you?

LK: Leon Theremin is very important to me. He had a great personality and was an astonishing inventor. He invented many different things that could be operated without touch, things which could be sensed at a distance. In 1925 he invented different versions of television. Back then it was all revolutionary. He was 80 years old when he taught me how to play the theremin. For my first lesson, he came all the way across Moscow and climbed five floors to see me. You just don't forget things like that.

Reporters' impressions

Tsau Jin Cheng: The theremin looked a bit surreal at first. But Lydia explained that the mechanical complexities lay hidden within the instrument. Once I played the theremin, I found it fascinating.

Sanchez Lo: Lydia Kavina is a truly inspiring person. I had never heard of the theremin before. I found it fascinating to learn that musicians play it in different ways to explore its potentials. The same, I think, applies to life. So the workshop not only taught me how a theremin works but also introduced me to a different approach to life.

Rachel Cheng: The theremin is the coolest electronic instrument I've ever seen. Lydia was super-nice. She held my left hand and showed me how to control the volume while I was tuning the keys with my right hand. The theremin turns your hands into magician's wands. When you wave them, you produce music as if by magic.

Holly Leung: Despite the way it works - played without touch - the theremin can be a very personal instrument. You literally have to "sense" the music in the air while performing. Yet it's very hard to play it well. I marvelled at the uniqueness of the theremin and the possibilities it provides for musical innovators.

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