“Töne aus einer anderen Welt”

Andrea Hartmann interviewed me and wrote this nice piece for EZ. Here is an English translation…

Otherworldly Sounds
Musician and sound engineer Andrew Levine from Hamburg would like to make the Theremin better known

On August 5, 1920, the Russian Lev Termen, who later called himself Leon Theremin, presented the Theremin. An “electronic” instrument that has been used again and again, but is still little known overall. Andrew Levine from Hamburg wants to change that.


Hamburg. If you close your eyes and listen to the singularly strange sounds, the tones of a theremin sound like they were plucked from Scifi films, strange worlds – spherical, wavy, often not clear in timbre and pitch. The theremin, an inconspicuous, box-shaped instrument, was first presented on August 5, 1920 and was then used sporadically in film scores and pop music. The Hamburg based musician and sound engineer Andrew Levine would like to bring it to as many listeners as possible. He therefore regularly gives concerts with the instrument in different formations.

Making music without touching your instrument: This is a special feature of the theremin that no other instrument commonly used in Western culture shares. It is played with two hands controlling antennas at varying distances. “What you can do with a theremin is fascinating. It’s like flying without restrictions,” says Levine, who has been playing the instrument for a good ten years. Whimsical, as if from another world, only something for niche musicians: This is the reputation of the theremin, which was invented by the Russian Lev Termen.

Everyone has to find their own approach

Levine wants to get it out of this niche. “It keeps cropping up as a curiosity. It’s such a great freestyle instrument,” he says. During his performances, improvisational music is usually heard, so no finished compositions, but spontaneous works in which each musician adjusts to the other. Levine forms the trio “european electro-acoustic chamber music” with Sebastian Gramss (double bass) and Andreas Krennerich (saxophones), the duo “Klingt wie Industrie” with Eric Cordier (NOL / No Output Laptops) and the “NōKabuki Ensemble” with Benoit Cancoin (double bass) and Korhan Erel (electronics).

Taking lessons the way violinists, flautists or pianists know it makes little sense for theremin players, says Levine. “Everyone has to find out how they want to play,” says the 53-year-old. “You can watch videos, you can of course take lessons, there are theremin schools. But everyone should see for themselves how they find their access, their own technology,” emphasizes Levine, who has lived in Hamburg since 2005 and bought his first theremin, a Moog Etherwave Plus in 2010. That year his then eleven-year-old daughter took part in a music camp; Tonmeister Levine started talking about music with a friend whose son was also there. Anna Mandel is a sculptor and asked Levine at the time if he would be interested in recording her when she would “sing her sculptures”.

“At that time I had come across the theremin a few times,” says Levine. Working together with Anna Mandel and the duo “Skulpturensingen” resulted in regular playing on the instrument. “My many years of playing the violin were useful in this,” says Levine. Because with the string instrument, which he has been playing since he was six, he had acquired two essential skills: “I trained my hearing and I learned to play without frets,” says the musician.

There are no frets on the violin, that is, grip limits as you know them from the guitar. So the instrumentalist has to find the right pitch all by himself. This is at least as difficult with the Theremin, and therefore it is not always possible to achieve clean tones: “You have to be able to correct quickly,” explains Levine. All electrically conductive objects within a radius of up to three meters influenced the magnetic field within which the tones are created.” These objects can also be people,” says Levine, which is why sufficient distance between the audience is important when it comes to playing in a controlled way.

Levine, who was born in New York, grew up in Trier and went to school, sang in choirs and studied Computational linguistics, now makes music with saxophonists, pianists, singers and percussionists, once with the Hamburg organist Manuel Gera. For some time now, Levine has been combining the theremin with an analog synthesizer (Make Noise Music 0-Coast) and a Continuum Fingerboard from Haken Audio, an electronic, keyboard-like instrument.

*** Sidebar ***

The theremin

The electronic instrument was invented by the Russian Lev Termen, who emigrated to the USA and called himself Leon Theremin there. He presented it to the public for the first time on August 5, 1920. The box-shaped instrument is played without contact; The position of the hands in relation to two electrodes (“antennas”) controls the pitch and volume. The tones with a range of four to six octaves are output via loudspeaker. The theremin was played primarily in new music and in film scores, for example in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” from 1945. It gained a larger role in music history in the 1950s with Robert Moog, who started his career building theremins. Only later did he develop his pioneering synthesizers. In the 1970s and 1980s it was also used in pop music, among others with Jean-Michel Jarre.

(Photo: Jochen Quast)