Meet Clara Rockmore, the Pioneering Electronic Musician Who First Rocked the Theremin in the Early 1920s

Fas­ci­na­tion with the theremin, the oth­er­world­ly elec­tron­ic musi­cal instru­ment devel­oped in the late 1910s and ear­ly 1920s out of Sovi­et research into prox­im­i­ty sen­sors, may nev­er cease. Some of that has to do with the unusu­al nature of its touch­less inter­face, con­sist­ing of twin anten­nas that the play­er moves their hands around in order to con­trol the tone. More of it has to do with what the few who have dared to mas­ter the theremin have achieved with it, and no dis­cus­sion of the mas­ters of the theremin can be com­plete with­out the name Clara Rock­more.

“Born in Rus­sia, March 9, 1911, Clara inher­it­ed the fam­i­ly trait of per­fect pitch and could pick out melodies on the piano at age two,” says the Nadia Reis­berg and Clara Rock­more Foun­da­tion’s biog­ra­phy. Accept­ed into the pres­ti­gious St. Peters­burg Impe­r­i­al Con­ser­va­to­ry as a vio­lin stu­dent at the unprece­dent­ed­ly young age of four, it seemed like she’d already found her path to musi­cal star­dom — until the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion got in the way.

The fam­i­ly fled to Amer­i­ca, with Clara and her pianist sis­ter Nadia giv­ing con­certs to make mon­ey through­out the ardu­ous jour­ney. They arrived in New York in Decem­ber 1921, but before Clara could con­tin­ue her stud­ies there, “she devel­oped an arthrit­ic prob­lem with her bow arm, and had to give up the vio­lin.”

But all was not lost: she met Leon Theremin, inven­tor and name­sake of the theremin (pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here), and found her­self “fas­ci­nat­ed by the aes­thet­ic part of it, the visu­al beau­ty, the idea of play­ing in the air.” Soon devel­op­ing “her own fin­ger tech­nique, allow­ing her infi­nite­ly greater con­trol of pitch and phras­ing” and lat­er sug­gest­ing mod­i­fi­ca­tions to the instru­ment to improve its range and sen­si­tiv­i­ty, she could with­in years play clas­si­cal pieces on the theremin, mak­ing sounds no clas­si­cal com­pos­er could have imag­ined. Her per­for­mances, some­times accom­pa­nied by Nadia and some­times as a part of an orches­tra, led to the release of her first album (record­ed by Robert Moog, whose name also echoes down the halls of elec­tron­ic music), The Art of the Theremin in 1977. (Stream it on Spo­ti­fy below.)

Rock­more passed away in 1998, hav­ing been brought back into the pub­lic eye a few years ear­li­er, at least to an extent, by Steve M. Mar­t­in’s doc­u­men­tary Theremin: an Elec­tron­ic Odyssey. Just last year, count­less many more of us learned not just the word theremin but the name Clara Rock­more when Google’s front-page “doo­dle” cel­e­brat­ed her 105 birth­day. Those who clicked on it could receive a brief, game-like theremin les­son from an ani­mat­ed ver­sion of Rock­more her­self, all while hear­ing sounds pre­cise­ly engi­neered to repli­cate her dis­tinc­tive play­ing style. You can see the real Rock­more play­ing Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan” at the top of the post. Any­one who’s heard the theremin knows that no oth­er instru­ment sounds quite like it — and any­one who’s heard Rock­more play­ing the theremin knows no oth­er theremin has ever sound­ed quite like hers.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Jim­my Page Rock the Theremin, the Ear­ly Sovi­et Elec­tron­ic Instru­ment, in Some Hyp­not­ic Live Per­for­mances

Sovi­et Inven­tor Léon Theremin Shows Off the Theremin, the Ear­ly Elec­tron­ic Instru­ment That Could Be Played With­out Being Touched (1954)

See Japan­ese Musi­cians Play “Amaz­ing Grace” with 273 Theremins Placed Inside Matryosh­ka Dolls–Then Learn How They Per­form Their Mag­ic

Hear Sev­en Hours of Women Mak­ing Elec­tron­ic Music (1938–2014)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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