I admit it: I own a theremin. I assembled it from a kit that my brother and I bought online in the mid-90s, long before every dork who never got laid was posting theremin interpretations of the Super Mario Bros. theme song on YouTube. I know that doesn’t make me special. It just means I did a nerdy thing before it was nerd-cool.
Of course, none of that would have been possible without Clara Rockmore. A violin prodigy who had to give up the instrument because of tendinitis, she was the theremin’s first and only virtuoso. Without her performances of classical repertoire on this strangest of strange instruments, it’s likely the theremin never would have been seen as anything other than a sound-effects device, capable only of warbling along in the background of sci-fi movie scores like The Day The Earth Stood Still or Mars Attacks. And while that’s still probably the instrument’s highest and best use, to lock it away in the closet of doodads like the slide whistle or brake drum would be to ignore its stage-setting role in the electronic music that we hear now, every single day.
Rockmore, née Reisenberg, was a Lithuanian immigrant living in New York when she met Russian engineer and future spy Leon Theremin in 1928. This was several years after Theremin had invented, by accident, the instrument that came to bear his name. His experimentation with antennas and oscillators eventually led to the development of the first motion sensor, but he also discovered that when he added circuitry to a certain antenna to create an audio response, the pitch changed as his hand moved closer or farther away from it. Though not a serious musician, Leon had studied cello as a child, and he taught himself to play some classical tunes on the device, giving demonstration concerts with it around Europe in 1927, then America the following year.
Rockmore brought a violinist’s sensibility to the instrument, seeing it as an obvious choice for concerto and aria transcriptions. She also gave it something Theremin could not: proof of concept. She was a far greater musician than he, and her ability to coax music from his instrument immediately impressed him. She developed several techniques for playing theremin that were necessary to overcome its built-in challenges. Most of today’s theremin players (and there are some, check out future artist spotlights on them) still use a variation of her finger positions to play with greater precision.
She also brought her personal chemistry. Though she was only 17, and Theremin was already married, the two were obviously smitten. Just look at them in that picture above! Rockmore later detailed how the inventor would take her dancing three to four nights a week, he in a tuxedo and she in a formal gown, following classy ballroom bands from hotel to hotel across New York. He also lavished her with gifts, including her own theremin (wow!) and a cake for her eighteenth birthday that lit up and spun around automatically when she approached it. It was all for naught, though — she turned down his numerous marriage proposals and eventually got hitched to a lawyer. Tough breaks.
Then again, it probably wouldn’t have worked out. Remember how Theremin was a Russian spy? After living in the United States for years, the Soviet Union had him spirited back to Mother Russia in the late 1930s. His disappearance was so abrupt that many believed he’d been killed, but it turned out he’d merely been assigned to a gold mine, and later a laboratory in a gulag, where he was put to work developing new technology for the regime. There, he built a bug that was planted in the U.S. ambassador’s Moscow residence and remained undetected for years . He also invented a laser-based long-range listening device that let you hear distant conversations by pointing it at the nearest window; his bosses used it to spy on the British, French, and U.S embassies, as well as on Stalin himself. Good thinking, comrades.
Back in the States, Rockmore continued to perform. She’d given Theremin feedback on the instrument’s design, and her tweaks made it more useful for musicians. She did many performances with the New York Philharmonic under Leopold Stokowski, and several of these were broadcast on WOR, back when live radio shows were still a thing. But she didn’t record an album until 1977, when synthesizer pioneer and theremin enthusiast Bob Moog prevailed on her to do so. Moog and his wife produced The Art of the Theremin, which featured piano accompaniment by Clara’s sister, famed concert pianist Nadia Reisenberg.
That would probably be where the Clara Rockmore story ended, were it not for the inexplicable burst in popularity that the theremin has enjoyed in recent years. Part of that is due to Moog, who remained the instrument’s chief promoter after the other folks in this story all died (Theremin in 1993, Rockmore in 1998). The 1993 documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey bumped interest in the instrument as well.
The rise of the Internet, therefore, was perfectly timed for theremin lovers; like many subcultures, this disparate group of people found each other online, and the rest is nerd culture history. Clara Rockmore was even immortalized in aninteractive Google Doodle earlier this year, on what would have been her 105th birthday.
Moog shelved half of the tracks recorded for Rockmore’s first album, and nearly 30 years passed before Rockmore’s nephew, author and New York Times music critic Robert Sherman, was able to get them collected for a second record, the aptly titled Clara Rockmore’s Lost Theremin Album. It’s more of the same, but with a clean digital transfer and the addition of a chamber orchestra backing on a few tracks.
To be totally blunt, some of Rockmore’s music is just okay. Part of the problem is the lack of music written specifically for theremin. When playing violin and cello transcriptions, even Rockmore’s best work can’t overcome the theremin’s shortcomings: lower-pitched notes are often out of tune, and attacks that should have been crisp turn into quick but noticeable swoops. This is where composition and arrangement are important: violin music is meant to be played on violin. That said, those works written for theremin, which appreciate its abilities but also its limitations, are superior, such as Anis Fuleihan’s “Pastorale” above.
Either way, we owe Clara Rockmore a portion of our thanks for helping develop electronic music into what it is today. Without her performances, it’s likely Moog would never have invented his synthesizers—he actually founded his company to build and sell theremins—and you can extrapolate from there the legacy of synth music that would not have appeared. I’m sure we’d still have electronic music if Rockmore had never waved her hands in front of those antennas, but I’m not sure it would work the way it does now.