“There are maybe three or four professionals” in the world, says Lydia Kavina. She’s talking about players of the theremin, the electronic instrument best known for those spooky whoo-woo glissandi in fifties science-fiction movies. (Kavina is the most prominent of those few.) It’s a weird device, played by waving a hand before its pair of antennae. Since the Russian engineer Leon Theremin built the first one in 1920, it’s gone from lab oddity to avant-garde darling to footnote to cult object. Today the instrument’s fans are distributed about as you’d expect: a scattering of serious electronic-music-makers (Richard Moog), a few pop musicians seeking a cool new sound (Led Zeppelin, the Beach Boys, Portishead), and a whole lot of techie comic-book-collector types (Tim Burton, who used one in Ed Wood). There are many, many theremin Websites.
Kavina herself will perform in a chamber group on July 13 and make her New York solo debut on July 19 at the Society for Ethical Culture, where the program will include Howard Shore’s Suite From ‘Ed Wood.’ The occasion for these performances is the release of her latest Mode Records album, Music From the Ether. She’s particularly beloved by theremaniacs not only for keeping the curious instrument up-front and reputable but also because she’s the last protégée – and a first cousin twice removed – of Leon Theremin himself. Furthermore, she studied with Clara Rockmore, the theremin virtuosa who recorded most of those sci-fi soundtracks and was featured in the 1995 documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey. Rockmore died two years ago at 88, and one might wonder whether Kavina is the last of a disappearing breed. Not so: “I give many master classes in different countries,” she says in her heavy Russian accent. “My pupils – too many to count. Maybe 100.”