Maccimo Cervini theremin

Finalist of “Theremin Star” Massimo Cervini about his project “Decostruttori Postmodernisti”, the future of theremin and the Darwinian approach in music.

We continue a series of interviews with finalists of the Theremin Star competition.

Today we bring to your attention an interview with Massimo Cervini, an Italian theremin performer, composer and music producer.
Massimo began working with the theremin in 2015, and his “Decostruttori Postmodernisti” project became a bright and unusual participant in the competition dedicated to the centennial of theremin and received significant support from the audience, which ensured to him a place in the final of the competition.

Here is what Massimo writes about himself on his website:

“I was born in Umbria, right in the middle of Italy, and never really left this magical place. Here I use my ears since 1984.”

Decostruttori Postmodernisti – (Postmodern Deconstructionists in English, if you prefer) are four professional musicians combining sharp technical skills with the verve of cabaret.
The theremin is perhaps their most distinguishing feature, being one of the first completely electronic instruments invented in Soviet Russia in 1919. Two things make it unique – its very distinctive sound, and the way that the sound is controlled by the player who glides around the instrument without even touching it. The quartet also features the rather more standard piano, violin/viola and cello, but all the players double so that in a concert (and sometimes in the same piece) you might hear mandolin, melodica, kazoo, bird whistle or slide whistle.

DP are quite unlike anything else, being almost equal parts serious and silly and always entertaining. Their repertoire ranges from contempory Italian classics such as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly to classic classics by such as Mozart or Holst or Stravinsky to Somewhere over the Rainbow – a classic of a different kind, and always in inventive and often quite unexpected arrangements. Their videos will soon convince you!Their flair, innovation and wit is best shown in their 90 minute set:
In The Beginning Was The Sound……starting with Stravinsky, diving back to the medieval, totally ignoring Beethoven and ending up with the Bee Gees, ‘In The Beginning Was The Sound’ is an informal and entertaining rollercoaster ride through the history of music

Massimo, you are the finalist of the Theremin Star competition, congratulations!
100 videos had participated in the competition, but only 6 participants reached the final.
Really,it is a very interesting fact that three of six finalists of the Theremin Star competition are italian thereminists.
Are you acquainted with your Italian colleagues personally? 
Is theremin well- known instrument in Italy? 

It is indeed a very good achievement and I’m grateful to our fan base that supported us throughout this competition. As a matter of fact I’m quite surprised that 50% of the finalists are Italian! I’m not able to say if the theremin is more known in Italy than in other countries, but it’s surely still not as famous as it should, considering its long time existence and indubitable importance in the history of electronic music. Talking about Italian thereminists I know a few of them, but unfortunately they are far from where I live so it’s not easy to consider working together. Lina Gervasi contacted me a few years ago to exchange opinions about the instrument and its techniques, but we still never had the chance to meet in person. 

What is your attitude to the theremin? What is the theremin for you? How much time did it take you to learn to play theremin? Do you have any long-term plans connected with theremin ?

 I’ve always been extremely fascinated by slightly obscure and exotic instruments, and please trust me when I say that I consider those adjectives with a positive connotation. The theremin features an incredibly mystic sound, and the way in which it’s played somehow reminds me of witchcraft: for a musician like me, always interested in the theatricality of performance, those are unique characteristics. When I first start practicing it I was rather surprised that I could achieve decent results in a relatively short time: surely the fact that I had been playing music for 15 years before the theremin helped a lot, having an educated ear is key to succeed in this instrument. My main long term plan is surely Decostruttori Postmodernisti.

Massimo Cervini - theremin

Massimo, tell us, please, about Decostruttori Postmodernisti. What has inspired you to create this project? When and where did the first concert of Decostruttori Postmodernisti take place?
What is the main idea of your project and few words please about your audience? Is theremin a cherry on the cake in your very harmonious and friendly projeсt?

Decostruttori Postmodernisti was born in 2015 and was not intended to be a long time project at all. It actually began as a pleasant way to spend some free time with my friend and colleague Andrew Harvey, an English composer who spent some years in my birthplace in Italy. I had an etherwave plus theremi+n and never really practiced it, so we decided to schedule a very informal piano and theremin performance in two months time, giving me the chance to improve my playing.

Then things grew on their own, and it felt natural to us to create a show that could bring classical music to a generic audience, using humor to make it easier for non-classical lovers to enjoy this extraordinary musical heritage. 

Massimo, you are the composer and a political scientist, there are conservatory and university in your background. What can you say about the present and future of the theremin? Is there any chance for the theremin to become a part of the world classical performing culture or the theremin will remain in the mass consciousness for a very long time as a very exotic, shocking and not always pleasant instrument? What needs to be done for greater development of theremin art and a better understanding of theremin in society (and is it necessary to do this, from your point of view)?

 Honestly I don’t think the theremin will find its fortune in regular classical orchestras: they are extremely expensive institutions and therefore crowded with all sorts of political concerns. Orchestras are somehow museums of music: they are hugely important to us so that we can save the musical heritage I was talking about, but it’s no surprise to me that they are not so open to the new (or at least, like the theremin, an “old kind of new”). I’m much more optimistic about a growth in the use of theremin in modern popular music and contemporary classical music: these genres are way more experimental, and the theremin – with its wide range and unique timbre – can definitely find space. Let’s not forget that the theremin can also be used as an analog controller for digital machines, and there’s a huge, and partly uncharted, field. Someone might argue that it’s not what the theremin is supposed to do, and that one is surely right, but I’m inclined to think about this development with a Darwinian approach: it’s survival, and animals need to evolve in order to survive.

Some time ago, one Italian electronic musician said to me: “Theremin is just like pizza, people do not need to go into historical details”.Sometimes ago one russian composer said to me: “We are not interested today in the history of saxophone and ideas of its inventor, so why we need to pay attention to the history of theremin?’’
What do you think about it? Is the history of theremin and historical performance experience important for you?

 The history of theremin is something I’m pleased to hear about, but in general terms I agree with the statement above: there will always be
niches of big fans, but in order to leave a deeper mark in the history of music the theremin community shouldn’t focus too much in history, trivia and curiosities. The theremin should be able to establish itself as a useful tool for modern composers of any kind, that would make an enormous difference and would ultimately assure a future to this extraordinary instrument. Then of course it’s good, once it got you to look behind and check its history. But if only a small number of people liked the theremin today, it’s unlikely that its history will be largely remembered. 

Maccimo Cervini theremin

Do you compose for theremin? Do you have plans to compose something in big form for theremin, theremin sonata, for example? There are huge gaps in the theremin repertoire: first theremin sonata had appeared only in 2013. Today only two people are noticed in composing sonatas: German composer Christopher Tarnow and Canadian composer Aleksandr Rappoport. Sonatas by Christopher Tarnow are the most famous in the world of the theremin, this music is bright, dynamic and includes provocative expression, some moments returned me to Le Grand Macabre of Ligeti.
Sometimes there are too many musical eccentricities for theremin, at the same time there are always very inspiring and expressive piano, though, in my perception, there are surely some reminiscences from the musical masterpieces of the past, but maybe it is the part of composers’s conception.

Perhaps, initially, Tarnow had conceived his sonatas differently, but in reality, it sounded exactly in the way as it sounded due to Carolina Eyck, the world’s leading thereminist with theremin experience more than twenty years. Also, the unique Pamelia Kurstin, who is rightfully considered to be the leading thereminist, had inspired the Canadian composer Alexander Rappoport and as a result, three more sonatas for the theremin were born.
The composer talks quite interestingly and in detail about his  theremin sonatas, but the music, for my ear, sounds somehow unconvincing and a little bit unleavened. How do you see modern music for theremin? What new music do we need for theremin today? What do you think of the outrageous elements in contemporary theremin music?

I must admit I’m not that strong in the topic you just raised: I’ve heard a lot of recordings and live performances by the two extraordinary thereminsts you mentioned, and also heard about the composers, but never really studied none of those works. My relationship with traditional music forms is not very good: I respect them as they were perfectioned by incredible composers through centuries, but I rarely – if never – choose them to guide my work. I basically do not compose music that sounds classical at all, and honestly such a work for theremin is not currently at the horizon.

As for contemporary classical music, well, it’s outrageous by default, it needs to be outrageous in order to survive, so I wouldn’t worry at all about that. 

Do you think it makes sense to teach theremin at a conservatory or music schools, at least optionally, can this be anything useful to future musicians?

 Knowledge always makes sense, and the theremin – due to it’s frankly quite difficult way of playing – could be a very valuable tool to improve musical skills in pupils. And I don’t mean theremin students, but music students in general. The development of the ears is key to any decent musician, and the theremin requires it enormously. Sure: also singing dramatically improves the ear and pitch, and it’s incredibly much cheaper, but in my experience they are two quite different things, both very useful to the create a solid base for a professional musician.

In 2019, we began the celebration of the century of theremin. Do you think a hundred years for the development of performing arts of a musical instrument is a lot or quite a little?

Well, thinking about how fast is the world we live in, I’d say it’s enough to make an assessment of how this development worked, and how it could keep developing in unforeseen directions. Let’s be creative and inventive: we will not find the future of this great instrument by repeating over and over classical music stereotypes. I root for the theremin

I am very grateful to Massimo for the interview, his opinion is very important to me. I felt just a little snobbery in Massimo’s words with respect to the theremin, but this intonation is rather a common litmus test that defines a professional musician.

Undoubtedly , Massimo loves theremin enough to play it, but that does not prevent him from being objective.
Massimo expresses his theremin position openly, and  it seems to me,that his position is consonant with the position of the majority among music professionals in the world.
Nevertheless, I will wait for the moment when Massimo will write beautiful and unusual music for theremin, it seems to me that this will happen

Today there are very few thereminists in the world who have a real passion and individual ideas of the theremin performing technique, it’s integration in cultural space and the reversal of  the public perceptions about the theremin.
Sometimes it seems to me that the group of these very few thereminists is still standing on the platform of the London King Cross station in an attempt to get on the platform  9 3 \ 4.
Moreover, even these thereminists do not have common opinion on the development of theremin and the ways of changing the views of society on theremin, since their aspirations are often diametrically opposed.
In my opinion, the main problem today is that a real classic thereminist should have a real classic theremin.
But the musical possibilities of modern theremins are not designed for high-level classical performers, and most musicians feel this, so for many years there has been downshifting of  classical theremin into the format of contemporary art, electronic and experimental, popular music and etc., of course, it popularizes theremin and expands the use of theremin in different spheres. but it often distorts the perception of the theremin as a musical instrument.

P.P.S. As a child, I asked my grandfather Lev Theremin about Darwin’s theory, and he told me then that this theory has no connection with him and me. This work is written about that part of society that descended from monkeys

Theremin today
Author: Masha Theremin
The granddaughter of Lev Theremin, the first theremin for Masha, he did when she was 3 years old. Co-organizer of Thereminology Festival in St.Petersburg and Moscow . Co-founder of the St. Petersburg Theremin Society. She writes a the biography book about Lev Theremin.

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