public01: save before it's gone
talk with andreï smirnov, theremin centre
thursday may 25, 2006
Pre-interview for the interview with Andrei Smirnov with Guy Van Belle
Magde I’m curious what do you think is the best question for Andrei Smirnov?
Guy Andrei, how the hell did you get there?
Guy Theremin Centre. It’s a strange story, it’s a good story. He used to work for this space museum in Moscow. That’s great. And he worked with the brainwaves before. So it’s like a really cool question.
Magde OK, thanks.
Magde When I watched you doing your presentation I was wondering how you actually started working with theremin and the Theremin Centre. What was the path that led you to music, but also this very technical and scientific way of doing it.
Andrei Yeah, that’s easy somehow. I think that as far as I remember, I started to build my first electronic music devices in the age of fourteen. So since fourteen I was doing this stuff and approximately when I was a second year student at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, my specialisation was solid state physics and laser and anything that relates to the subject. And I decided in a while to get rid of this specialisation and to start to look at the electronic music, but in Russia it was almost impossible, because you couldn’t do it professionally in this area. You couldn’t get any education in the contemporary music, specially in the electro-acoustic music, so it was somehow a self-taught way. I had to explore a lot of literature and libraries and read a lot of things.
Magde But than there was no internet, so was this literature available in Moscow?
Andrei Strange, but yes. I think that my first book I found it in the autumn 1975, it was a book by Max Matthews. I don’t remember now the actual name of the book but it’s his main book on the computer music, he wrote in the sixties, about his musical program and so I started that and then I found a little magazines in the libraries, mostly American - Journal of Acoustical Society, Acoustical Engineering Society also, a lot of them were discussing this topic. Somehow a had a huge labour at that time, articles, articles, articles, somehow sharing them..
Magde So you continued studying and then you ended up directly in the Theremin Centre or you were doing something different?
Andrei No, I had this idea to make a studio, but not for myself but somehow to collaborate with other musicians, just to make it obvious, i saw this program everywhere, people building their own studios and spending lot of efforts and money and finally they get the studio, but to get the studio, they just lose their creative potential somehow. So I wanted to make a studio for creative people, to combine facilities, each musician has something, so we can combine and make a separate community, so that was the initial idea of the Theremin Centre. To make a studio for experimental musicians who want to collaborate and develop something which is not possible when you’re alone.
Magde All these other people, they were also in a similar situation, that they were not able to get education in the contemporary music, so they were more into the technical field?
Andrei First they went abroad, sometime approximately in the 1990 or 1989, because before that for me and many many young people it was just impossible to get an international passport to get abroad. So in Russia we couldn’t get that education, the Soviets offered just no education. It’s just great there! Very very classical, in conservatory you can learn how to write music of the nineteenth century, but you won’t have any idea about Stockhausen, or Boulez. You know them, but nobody really teaches you how to compose contemporary music on one hand, on the other hand, electro-acoustic music is just not existing. So the Theremin Centre was some sort of exception. It’s still an exception.
Magde How is it now, it is not a state institution?
Andrei It was a private non-profit organisation. I did it officially as soon as in Russia this law about non -profit organisation was accepted. It was approximately in 1993, or 1994. So I immediately created this Theremin Centre. But now, the situation is completely opposite, because now the state is trying to get rid of the all these non-profit organisations they develop new law which will really I think give them possibility to close in a while all the organisations which are not really good from the point of view of their political ambitions. Since 1999 I started to connect the Theremin Centre to the Moscow conservatory and now it’s a part of Moscow conservatory. The name Theremin Centre since last december became official name of a department of Moscow conservatory. I think it is good, at least I can be more sure it will stay.
Magde Yes, I see. So it’s very much connected with the politics. In Slovakia is maybe more about the opinion of the public, I mean..
Andrei In Russia it means nothing. Because virtually... I really, I had a very big shock in the 1999, when there were elections, and then I found out, I think very bad about the Russian society, the Russian citizens, because I immediately understood that the percentage like 5 percents of people somehow are thinking probably the same way as me but the rest, it looks like has a completely different way of thinking, but OK... so. I mean that’s not political question. But somehow I think the situation in Russia is really not good especially for any sorts of arts or music. It’s still not obvious but I’m sure that if it will continue like this, in several years we’ll have a really strange situation because all these non-profit will just go down.
Magde Because they don’t have the state support, or why?
Andrei The state support is really like, it’s not an anecdote, it’s the known story about state support that if you want to get support from Russian Ministry of culture - it’s one of the latest laws they excepted, for example One Moscow theatre wanted to celebrate their 100th anniversary and now according to the new regulations they have to apply for funding but they cannot apply themselves, but they need to have some competitors. Only competition can give you some funding. So you need to find an organisation who wants make the same kind of grant.
Magde Like what? The anniversary?
Andrei Yes, so they found one more theatre, OK, minister of culture wants it, OK so we do it. So they applied also to celebrate the anniversary of this first theatre, and they won finally.
Andrei They won. Nobody really knew what to do with it.
Magde That’s really crazy.. Who are these people who decide?
Andrei I don’t know how it finished but the situation was really strange.
Magde And I though that bureaucracy in Slovakia is on the top level.
Andrei No, Russian bureaucracy is... No bureaucracy can really attain the level of idiotism. It’s not idiotism, I think it’s really precise politics. Maybe you know, maybe not, but Russia has two ministries of culture. We had one minister of culture, but they fired him, and they made him the director of Cultural agency, new organisation, and the second person - the director of Moscow conservatory became the minister. But they have the same kind of possibilities, but one has money and the second has to plan. So one makes some plan and the other decides to give money for these plans or not. So finally everything is stuck, completely stuck. It’s so stupid, but I’m sure that that’s politics. Because for our new generation of politicians, for this Putin power, I think they just don’t need any cultural activities.
Magde Hm. So this is a policy to liquidate it? To get rid of it?
Andrei Not get rid of it, just to make them as quiet as possible. Yeah, but well, anyway, it’s really strange.
Magde Is there some kind of organised or un-organised resistance on the side of the artists or the cultural public?
Andrei It’s Russia. It’s Russia. Russia never had any resistance. That’s also specific of our country, but people just won’t. It’s like this tradition of the kitchen conversations comes back when people would prefer to speak in the kitchen, but not openly, because now again this, more and more you feel this pressure. You see that people are just afraid to talk openly. Just reminding the not so far past - twenty years back, it was not like now but you feel the same feelings coming back.
Magde I was just talking to Erika about this, that this is something that also in Hungary goes very slowly, to change the thinking of people about how they not should behave but how they can behave actually. That there are the possibilities to protest or not to be happy with something.
Andrei I think in Russia no one will protest, we need really a big shock and last ten years, somehow, probably it was a mistake that nothing wrong happened. Because without really a strong shock, I don’t know which kind of shock, nothing will change.
Magde So what is your motivation to stay there? If you don’t see much possibilities, is it this kind of trying to do something useful for the public, or is it really..?
Andrei No, I’m in a really difficult situation somehow. In the nineties, sincerely I was really sure, I was believing that if we create a some kind of small community and develop it I’m sure that in parallel new communities will develop in the same way in a while, we will all somehow unite and we’ll give some new quality to the society but it didn’t work. Most of persons, you now I feel really bad, but I’m not sure it will stay too long, but I’m really linked to this history because somehow in the Theremin Centre I’m just sitting on a golden mountain, all these archives which are not developed and lot of very interesting forgotten information and I really want to develop it. So I’m trying to keep the balance.
Magde So this one of the motivations? To preserve the things, develop them and make public?
Andrei Yes, it’s very important.
Magde And how did you actually get to have all these things there? Was it your own work, or other people helped you?
Andrei You know, Moscow conservatory is a very special place, Moscow is the capital of Russia and also Soviet union and Moscow conservatory was the main conservatory in the whole country, that means that if anybody anywhere developed, invented some musical device, to get the patent they had to get some response of some expert. And all experts were in Moscow conservatory. Because that since twenties, all inventions were coming to the conservatory and getting some responses, so that’s the basis of this archive. And also all developers, researchers making some interesting researches in music, were coming to the Moscow conservatory, making reports there, doing disertations, so we have a huge archive. And it was thrown away in the seventies.. Just in the garbage. But fortunately one clever guy moved it back and collected them in some corner, and when I came to the conservatory in 1992, he showed me this corner and I moved it back to the shelves.
Magde And is public interested in this or it’s more like a specialised thing for musicians...
Andrei What’s public? Of course, Russia is huge and most of it is just not interested in anything.
Magde I mean public, when you, do you do concerts like this?
Andrei Of course, lot of young people come and are really crazed about this stuff and they can’t get the information anywhere, we really have a lot of people coming, and that’s good that mostly eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old, they’re so much involved and so much interested. So I hope they will survive. Of course the most important is to have those people coming, because when you get really a good response from people who come not because they’re forced, or are not inscribed in the conservatory, but just because they found on the web the information and they’re interested, they come and it’s really a good feedback and good resonance.
Magde That;s nice, I feel like it’s a bit lacking in Slovakia.
Andrei It’s a question I think of personalities. If you have some crazy guy who can do the same, so, in this case, probably I would move, because I understand that. If I were to move somewhere, at least Theremin centre will die. That’s really bad that I don’t see any activities somehow take care about what we are doing. It’s really pity, I was expecting that it will become a kind of wave and will have new people. Just because it’s not possible to survive, if you’re doing the same thing. I’m lucky, because in the nineties I got some really good relations with the western studios, west and American contemporary musicians and so they invite me for workshops, lectures, so I can somehow keep the balance. But of course if I just stay in Russia and work in conservatory, I can’t survive. So I have go in this sort of business. Probably the most interesting musicians coming to the Theremin Centre are professionally working in banks, they are lawyers, any specialisation except musical art. It’s just not possible.