First International Theremin Festival   

I first heard about the then-upcoming First International Theremin Festival in Portland, Maine through Albert Glinsky, who is writing Out of Thin Air: Theremin and the Age of Ether, to be published by University of Illinois Press. I had contacted him regarding his book and he told me about the Festival. This was back in January (1997). I immediately contacted Olivia Mattis, the Director of the Festival, and found out that seven of the twenty-five openings had already been filled! So I immediately made a reservation, and -then- began wondering how I was going to get there in light of my rather deplorable financial predicament at the time.

(That I ended up being able to attend, after all, is a witness more to present-day miracles than to my own ability to find a steady job...)

So, on June 14th, I departed from Los Angeles to Portland via Pittsburgh. I arrived in Portland Saturday evening and met Reid Welch, my theremin pal, face-to-face for the first time. Until then, we had only communicated and phones. We soon met up with Don Bice who also arrived at about the same time.

After a few missteps and false leads we finally found our way to Portland Hall, a youth hostel in a section of downtown Portland that, sadly, has seen better days. The dorm-like accommodations at Portland Hall were spartan, but bearable, made all the more enjoyable by errant strains of theremin music that wafted down the long, musty corridors at just about any time of the day or night.

Sunday morning I arose and prepared to go over to the Portland Conservatory of Music, where the opening festivities were to begin. As I was getting ready I mused to myself about what it would be like to meet Bob Moog face to face. He is, one could say, the father of electronic music (with Leon Theremin being the grandfather); the name “Moog” is legendary and universal; and is forever tied to the musical revolution of the 1960s. I fully expected to have some sort of major mountaintop experience upon meeting him in person for the first time. I did know really know what I was expecting, but it surely was going to be something big, probably involving heavenly, angelic choruses and beams of celestial light streaming down upon him.

As it turned out, my first encounter with him could hardly have been more anticlimactic. I was waiting at a street corner for the traffic light to change. Across the street I saw a man standing there on the opposite corner with white curly hair and wearing a nondescript sweater. Could it be...?

The light changed, and the two of us began crossing the street heading toward one another. We meet right in the middle of the street and I saw that it was, indeed, Dr. Robert Moog. I said, upon meeting up with him, “Dr. Moog I presume?” He replied, “You must be Charles Richard Lester.”. So there we met — quietly, simply, uneventfully — in the streets of Portland, Maine.

Later, when I arrived at the Conservatory I was regaling someone with the story of how I had envisioned my first meeting with Moog. When I got to the part about “angelic choruses and beams of celestial light,” a disembodied voice from the other side of a partition exclaimed, good-naturedly, “Oh, my God!” It was Moog. I was more than a trifle embarrassed that he had overheard my starstuck and awestruck remarks!

The thing that I came to appreciate in Bob Moog is what a quiet, unassuming and humble man he is. I already knew of his electronic genius and virtuosity with a soldering iron. I also came to know that under that genius, under those years of international success and acclaim, lies a genuine, generous, kindhearted and willingly helpful person.

Well, enough mawkish effusiveness about Moog; now, let’s turn to Lydia Kavina — the other great surprise in terms of humility and graciousness. When I entered the Conservatory reception area for the first time, there were quite a few people milling about. Olivia Mattis was there and we greeted one another in person for the first time; and Dr. and Mrs. Moog, and just a whole bunch of people, all to whom I was frantically trying to divide and direct my attention. I was vaguely aware that a woman — the receptionist, I assumed — was seated at the reception desk handing out name badges and agendas but my view of her was partially blocked by all the people. Then “the receptionist” called out my name and I realized it was none other than world-renowned theremin virtuoso Lydia Kavina! Yes, Lydia Kavina, whose brilliant presence has graced stages and concert halls across the globe, was sitting at a receptionist’s desk in Portland, Maine, handing out name-tags and working out rehearsal schedules.

(Do take note that it’s not that I expected Bob and Lydia to be ogres; not at all! It’s just that they both were so gracious and humble; embodying low-key demeanors that totally belied their successes and triumphs in the realm of music in general and in world of the theremin in particular.)

While we were milling about, meeting folk and waiting for the opening dinner to begin, some of us explored the various musical instruments in the recital hall, including a wonderful Steinway piano and Olivia Mattis’ 1926 RCA theremin. Dave Miller and I played an impromptu rendition of “Over the Rainbow” that was well received; and then Peter Pringle also took his place at the Mighty RCA and we also played a couple of pieces together. The Festival had barely begun and I was already having a blast!

Sunday evening was the opening dinner reception at the Conservatory where we officially met the participants of the Festival. I also met my roommate for the week, Jason Barile, curator of the Theremin Home Page. After the dinner, Bob Moog presented a fascinating slide show on the history of electronic music, then Reid Welch played a touching and inspiring recorded greeting that Clara Rockmore made for the Festival participants. Among other sentiments, she expressed her delight that the work of Leon Theremin was being carried on; and clearly stated her desire for her message to be disseminated to the theremin community freely, openly, and without encumbrances of any kind.

Monday morning, we attended a “master-class” with Lydia Kavina where she demonstrated theremin technique and played some marvelous works for us on her unusual, utilitarian-styled theremin, which looked more like something from a medical laboratory than a music room! But under her skilled fingers, the strange contraption definitely -was- a musical instrument! (The contrast of that simply styled theremin along with the gigantic, powerful, massive-looking amplifier and loudspeaker that loomed behind her presented a curious study in yin and yang!)

I was scheduled for a private lesson with Lydia Monday afternoon but due to scheduling snafus and over-booking of Lydia’s time (something that ended up being a challenge for her all week — the poor dear really was run ragged) that did not happen.

Monday afternoon we participated in a “master-class” with avant-garde musician Eric Ross. While his music may be inaccessible to some people (including me, quite honestly), working with him did expand horizons and break through barriers. And his congenial personality and willing demeanor made him a delight to spend time with, even if it was involved around music that I really did not understand, nor relate to. This is not a criticism of his musical talents or notable accomplishments; rather, just a candid expression of my inability to absorb much of what he was creating that week.

Monday evening it was off to the local cinema for a presentation of The Day the Earth Stood Still featuring, of course, the theremin skills of Dr. Samuel Hoffman and Paul Shure.

Tuesday morning offered another “master-class” with Eric Ross which in essence was basically rehearsal time [albeit fascinating and enjoyable, and I was invited to sit in even though I would not be performing in the Saturday concert] for his free-form composition “Overture,” op.47.

Tuesday night, Ed Wood, a hilarious movie featuring the thereminizing of Lydia Kavina, was screened. I, however, did not attend that presentation as I had made other plans for the evening.

Wednesday morning we participated in a most interesting and helpful movement workshop with Richard Ehrman. Then at noon we enjoyed an outdoor Theremin Jam featuring Lydia Kavina, a local jazz combo, and some of the Festival participants. I was scheduled to play but my theremin decided to display a stunning display of temperament, and refused to play even a peep. I found out later that it was likely due to interference from the gargantuan tons of electronic gear on the stage. Apparently, the Big Briar 91 is something of a wimp in the presence of its electronic inlaws, and becomes -quite- reticent.

Wednesday afternoon, a theremin display at the Portland Museum was unveiled but I didn’t make it in time.

(Concurrent during the week with all the other activities was an Etherwave building fest, overseen by a lovingly doting Bob Moog. The participants in that workshop obviously greatly enjoyed themselves, especially when their respective moments of truth came and they fired up their new Etherwaves for the first time. “IT’S ALIVE!!!” a wild-eyed participant shrieked!)

Thursday saw more rehearsals and “master-classes.”

Then Thursday evening brought quite a sudden and unexpected turn of events for me. Throughout the week, a crew from Good Morning America had been on hand to memorialize the unfolding drama of this first and unique Theremin Festival. They tried their hardest to stay out of the way but were not always successful; indeed, there were times when their presence was obtrusive and frustrating. But we all understood and appreciated the importance of the publicity and P.R. so we did our best to accommodate them for the greater good of the Festival.

Thursday afternoon, the producer of the show called Olivia Mattis and said they wanted to have a thereminist come down to New York City and appear live on the show Friday morning. They had hoped that Lydia would be able to do it but of course she could not, with her impending concert Friday night. So, Olivia invited a second-string theremin player to go in her stead --- li’l ol’ me!

(See my Updates page for a complete recounting of that whirlwind trip to Manhattan.)

I got back from New York just in time to rush over to the high school to participate in Lydia Kavina’s concert. Here is the printed program:

The piece I played in was Field Sound, written for four theremins. The other three thereminsits were Lydia Kavina, Dave Miller and Andrew Ptak. Here we are, taking a bow afterward:

I missed the last day of the Festival, Saturday, because I had to go to Virgina for my parents’ Golden Anniversary. However, those who want to know more about the festival can visit Dave Miller’s website and see his on-line report about the Festival. Also, Bob Moog has posted a very interesting account of his experiences at the festival. You can read it here.

It would be impossible to express adequate praise and appreciation to Olivia Mattis for nearly single-handedly bringing about this most successful First International Theremin Festival. The entire Fesital, in its broadest strokes and smallest details, was her idea; and she was involved in literally every aspect of bringing it to life; indeed, many responsibilities fell on her shoulders alone. I believe I can speak for everyone involved in the Festival for proclaiming its tremendous success in every regard.

Following is a gallery of snapshots from the Festival, in no particular order. (Click on the thumbnails to see full-size images.)

Olivia Mattis, Festival Director

Kerry Laitala, Charles Richard Lester, David Ball

Peter Pringle

Joan Pumphret

Dave Miller plays Over the Rainbow
with Charles Richard Lester on the piano
at the Outdoor Jam

Lydia Kavina at the Outdoor Jam

Reid Welch, Jason Barile,
Gail Arendell, Albert Glinsky

Nicoletta Stephanz with
her fire-engine red

Mark Segal, Peter Pringle

Reid Welch

Eric Ross

Ross Marshall

Lydia Kavina, Dave Miller

Bob Moog, Lydia Kavina

Charles Richard Lester, Bob Moog

Lydia Kavina

Bob Moog test-drives
a new Etherwave

John McIntyre, Jason Barile

Don Bice, Dave Ball

David MacQuarrie

Joan Pumphret

Linda Cook and her
new Etherwave

Richard Ehrman (no, the brown
glow is not ætherwaves;
it’s a certain photographer’s finger!)

“Pretty ’Waves All In A Row”

Olivia Mattis’ RCA Theremin
with Floyd Engles’ custom speaker

Three guesses to whom this
oscilloscope belongs!
(Hint: Look at the hat...)

Big Briar’s new EtherVox



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