An interview with Peter Zelenka

Peter Zelenka. Image courtesy of the author.A theatre play named Teremin, written and directed by popular Czech film scriptwriter Peter Zelenka, has become the high-profile event of the last theatre season in Prague. The plot line was inspired by the fascinating story of Lev Sergeevich Termen (1896 – 1993), a Russian acoustical engineer and inventor of the first widely accepted high-frequency electronic instrument and the first instrument that could be played without being touched — by moving the hands in the space between two antennae, which control intonation and volume. Originally called Aetherophon, later renamed after the French version of the inventor’s name, the “theremin” was invented around 1919 at the Moscow GIMN, the State Institute of Musical Studies, in a special department for the so called auto-musical instruments where new technologies for producing sound were developed and new instruments constructed in the far pre-electronic period. Termen became the forefather of synthesized electronic music and the leading persona of a new era of sound production and modification with the help of electric energy. The otherworldly sound of teremin was later used in numerous sci-fi and suspense films, such as Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945).

Termen‘s biography is paved with the milestones of 20th century history; he presents his instrument to Lenin in 1922, sets out on a tour around Russia in the time of the Great Famine to promote electrification, lives in New York during the Great Depression where he cooperates with Joseph Shillinger, meets Albert Einstein and marries a young Afro-American ballet dancer. He is forced to return to the Soviet Union in 1938 and, surviving Stalin’s purges, he comes back to New York several decades later – in his 90’s – to continue to raise awareness of the analogue electronic music.

Zelenka’s rather aesthetically conservative drama with detective overtones is set between 1928-1938 – the years that Termen spent in New York. The play premiered in Dejvicke theatre in November 2005, and was soon after nominated for the Alfred Radok Prize 2005 and translated into English and Russian. The Russian production of Teremin will be staged by Russian director Sergei Fedotov in April 2006 in Perm (Ural). Zelenka has obtained two functional replicas of a theremin for the Prague production from a small American company that manufactures the instrument in North Carolina. He will also assist Fedotov in acquiring the instrument – the key protagonist of the play. The English version, prepared by the author in cooperation with Jodie Marshall, a young British dramatist, will be presented at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds at a reading on May 13th, 2006.

Jana Klenhova: The story of Lev Termen and his inventions is fascinating not only from a political and musical or acoustical point of view, but also from a historical one – as a particular human fate that bears witness to the history of the 20th century. What aspects of Termen’s story were most appealing to you?

Peter Zelenka: Precisely that particular human fate.

J.K.: Termen’s dramatic life story provokes many myths and legends. Although the researchers and materials dedicated to this topic are scarce, they seem to contradict in many respects. In your interview for Hospodarske noviny (, for instance, you refer to the fact that Termen was kidnapped in New York as to a mere theory – in your play, Termen returns to the Soviet Union voluntarily – while in the documentary filmed by Steven Martin, we hear the testimony of friend of an eye witness of the kidnapping – Termen’s wife, an African-American ballet dancer, Lavinia Williams. What were the sources you drew on?

P.Z.: I mostly drew on a book by Albert Glinsky: Ethermusic and Espionage. There is also a book titled Russian (sic!) Faust, but as far as I know it is not translated into English, and my Russian is very bad. Moreover, Lydia Kavina, Teremin’s student and relative, assured me that Glinsky’s book is sufficient. The issue of kidnapping is controversial. Teremin worked for the Russian secret service throughout his whole life. Such people do not need to be kidnapped; they simply receive an order and move where they are needed. If he had intended to oppose the orders of the secret service, he would not have stayed in New York, I suppose. I have seen the documentary of Steven Martin and it is fantastic, but I do not consider the way Lavinia Williams might have remembered the kidnapping to be important. After all, Teremin might have been running from her as well. And finally, a dramatist always goes for the most dramatic option whenever he can choose from historical interpretations. And in this case, the most dramatic option was that Teremin returns to Russia in 1938 voluntarily, which means he opts for a certain death.

J.K.: The Russian sources refer to the major figure of your play as Lev Termen (see, e.g., the archive materials of the Moscow Termen Center, published at the internet site, other sources state the name in the following forms: Termen, Teremin or Theremin. However, the form „Teremin“ is mostly used to designate the instrument itself. Why did you decide to use the transcription – Teremin – that does not correspond with the Czech method of transliteration?

P.Z.: Oops, you see, the man is so elusive, that nobody knows how to write his name. There is a scene in the play where Lucie Rosen discusses this with her private detective and she admits that she does not even know the name of the inventor, the name of the man she fell in love with. In English the most common spelling is „Theremin“ which phonetically corresponds with „Teremin“ in Czech. We did consider the softened form „Teremin“ during our rehearsals but in the end it sounded too Russian. The form that you point out is some sort of a hybrid between the English and the Russian version. Russians themselves pronounce the name rather like „Terman“.

J.K.: Lev Termen (like other Russians who stayed in US for a longer period of time, such as Sergei Eisenstein or Roman Jakobson) was taken for an agent of the Russian secret service. When he returned to the Soviet Union he was persecuted as an agent of the West – a person linked up with the United States. In a sense, Termen also epitomized an agent of the future or of the electrification era, who infiltrated the musical system of the time and, as the subtitle of your play goes, „changed its face“. You interpreted him partly as an agent of democratization in music production – as the inventor and propagator of a musical instrument that can be played by all people equally, even by people who have no talent for music. What is Termen’s crucial mission in the play, though?

P.Z.: Teremin is a play about a man without a mission. He simply worked on his inventions because he was ordered to do so. You must not view a theatre play as a set of facts but rather as a human fate–in this case a fate of a very constricted man, who managed to do great things thanks to his enormous self-discipline and despite incredible obstacles. Of all Teremin’s technical inventions I personally most admire the eavesdropping device he invented in 1945. At that point he was maybe ten, twenty years ahead of his time. But that is not part of the play anymore.

J.K.: Did Termen really understand his instrument, the thereminvox, politically (in terms of the above mentioned democratization), or was the politization a posterior historiographical interpretation? Or perhaps your authorial interpretation?

P.Z.: That is hard to say because I have never met Teremin in person. What we know about him today comes from historical references. The late interviews from the 90’s are very confused; Teremin was losing his memory, confusing names and dates. This is logical — he was over 90 by that time.

J.K.: Your play shows that you have studied the inventor’s biography as well as the principles that form the base of his groundbreaking invention very thoroughly. The play contains numerous in-depth scientific explanations on one hand; on the other hand it interprets a number of ambiguous historical issues very freely. What function does the excess of stylized scientific information have in the play? Can it be understood as a way of aestheticizing science or scientific language?

P.Z.: I will leave this judgment to you as a spectator. I personally am fascinated by the valve (the electric bulb) and I have tried to outline for the audience the circumstances under which it was invented. I am not aware of any other scientific information in the play.

J.K.: The act of playing non-contact teremin is very charming also from the visual point of view, in terms of movement. This aspect seems to be rather reduced in the play, as if the excess of explication and information detracted the space for theatricality, for visual effects potentially contained in a dramatization of Termen’s story and the story of the instrument. Was it on purpose? How and why did you decide for this sort of imbalance (of verbal and visual communication)?

P.Z.: You will have to go to Russia in order to see a concert of teremin played by Lydia Kavina. As I have said already, we are speaking about a theatre play. You haven’t been to the theatre for a long time, have you? What visual effects do you have in mind in Dejvicke theatre? Laterna magika? That is impossible, unfortunately. Not that it was our intention anyway.

J.K.: The play was premiered on the 17th of November, as you have said, it is also a play about freedom. Did you choose the date of the premiere accordingly?

P.Z.: The dates of premieres are usually determined by the schedules of the guest actors. That is what happened in our case too.

Author’s note: Peter Zelenka is also planning a film biography of Termen.

Click here for an article about Lev Sergeevich Termen (aka Léon Theremin), creator of the theremin.

Jana Klenhova is a Ph.D candidate at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, working on a dissertation on theory of sound in early Russian cinema.

Peter Zelenka, Czech filmwriter and film director, studied scriptwriting and dramaturgy at the Film Academy FAMU in Prague. His film debut was dedicated to a Czech punk band Visací zámek (1993). Zelenka is the author of an acclaimed surreal comedy Knoflíkári (The Buttoners, 1997), awarded the Czech Lion Prize for script, direction and in the category of the best film. Another comedy based on situational humour Samotári (Loners, 2000), written by Zelenka and directed by David Ondrícek, became a huge hit in the Czech Republic. As a play writer and theatre director Zelenka began his career with Príbehy obycejného šílenství (Tales of Common Insanity) in 2001. The play was awarded the Alfred Radok Prize and the film version premiered in 2005 (Wrong Side Up). In 2002 Peter Zelenka directs Rok Dábla (Year of the Devil), a comedic documentary starring Czech folk-rocker Jarek Nohavica as a fictionalized version of himself. Year of the Devil won six categories at the 2002 Czech Lion awards.