It was Beethoven who claimed, “I am electrical by nature,” and it goes without saying that the readers of Remix take the idea of music created through the manipulation of electricity as a matter of course. But it wasn't so long ago when electronic music suggested the sort of science-fiction dystopia to which the music was often the soundtrack. A staple of '50s monster movies and stereo-fidelity tests, electronic music was used to convey intellectual menace or alien alienation. The idea of a virtuoso of electricity was difficult to fathom because one didn't even touch early electronic instruments in order to play them. Names such as the Ondes Martenot, the Solovox and the Telharmonium did little to suggest a human element. But those early days did produce a master musician, one who could draw feeling out of abstract vibrations. Her name was Clara Rockmore, the greatest theremin player who ever lived.
It's astonishing how many erudite musical figures have never even heard of Rockmore, whose brief fame during the 1930s and 1940s was eclipsed as her instrument began its relegation to the soundtrack booth. But among today's theremin players, she remains an awe-inspiring figure. Juan Maclean, thereminist and leader of the band that shares his namesake, declares, “The theremin is one of the hardest instruments to play because there is no physical reference for hitting certain notes — you are simply waving your hands in the air to control pitch and volume. It is based entirely on feel, a mastery of time and space devoid of physical reference. Clara Rockmore was the Jimi Hendrix of theremin players.”
The sort of control that is needed to play the theremin is extraordinarily rare: The theremin (or thereminvox) creates its sound through the manipulation of a surrounding electronic field. You don't really play the instrument; you play the space around it. Nonessential movements have to be kept to a minimum.
Steven M. Martin, director of Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, struck up a close relationship with Rockmore during the filming of the documentary. “She moves her whole hand around, not just her fingers, and she developed aerial fingering where moving just a pinky could change the tone,” Martin notes. “Her technique made the instrument obey her will. And as Clara put it, ‘I was doing it in four-inch heels.''”
Born in Vilnius, Lithuania in 1911, Clara Reisenberg was also born for the concert hall, and as a 5-year-old violinist, she was admitted as an exceptional student to the Imperial Conservatory of Music in St. Petersburg. She was the youngest student ever to have received that honor. After her family moved to New York in the early 1920s, Rockmore began suffering from bone problems related to malnutrition, which made it increasingly painful for her to play. Fortunately, she would come into contact with an instrument that needed no contact.
The Russian physicist (and amateur cellist) Lev Sergeivich Termen, later known as Léon Theremin, accidentally invented the instrument that bore his name shortly before the start of the Russian Civil War. Making his way to New York in the late 1920s, Theremin met the then Clara Reisenberg (she later married Robert Rockmore) through 'migr' art circles. Soon, they were inseparable. In Rockmore, Theremin found the epitome of expression for his instrument. In concert performances from the 1930s into the 1950s, Rockmore — possessed of perfect pitch — developed a musical language that became the standard of expression. “She carved this technique as if it were a block of wood and made it into something that actually worked,” Rob Schwimmer of the project Theremin Noir, marvels.
“And she would stand so close,” adds Martin. “Closer than most. I believe it was a physical manifestation of Professor Theremin.”
It could be argued that Rockmore's stamp on the instrument also doomed it to the margins. Her instrument was modern and electrical, but her sound was romantic and melancholic, conjuring up the 19th-century world of high-culture from which she came. She had little engagement with the avant-garde of her day and turned down the opportunity to play on the soundtrack to Alfred Hitchcock's movie Spellbound because she thought playing for cinema was beneath her art. “You know, in some real sense, Clara Rockmore may have been the worst thing that ever happened to the thereminist,” Anthony Ptak, a thereminist who jerry-rigs his own theremins, argues. “By refusing to embrace contemporary composers of her day, she wrote herself out of the history of 20th-century music.”
But Rockmore and Theremin felt that that was necessary to legitimize the theremin in the public's eye. “It made sense for [thereminists] to play a very established genre such as classical music, to really sort of reinforce the given importance of that instrument,” Dorit Chrysler, formerly of the band Halcion and co-founder of the Theremin Society, says. As the theremin began its move from Carnegie Hall to Area 51, Rockmore retired, more or less, and became something of a forgotten figure.
But she had not been entirely forgotten. Synthesizer pioneer Robert Moog spent his teen years building theremins and sought Rockmore out, recording her and working to revive both her instrument and her reputation. As the organic '70s moved into the electro-'80s, Rockmore was increasingly sought out as an electronic-music pioneer, as well as a feminist figurehead. And the fall of the iron curtain brought the reunion of Rockmore and Theremin, as captured in Martin's documentary. “They were, in their time, the first real pioneers of electronic music,” electronic-music vanguard Jean Jacques Perrey says.
Rockmore died in 1998, her reputation restored. Today, the theremin can be heard in countless styles and contexts. And the new attention possibly opened her up to new experience. “She was a little snooty about Spellbound,” recalls Martin. “But later she said to me, “Maybe I was wrong. A movie, why not?”