The story of Clara Rockmore, a trailblazer in the genre of electronic musicians, walks hand-in-hand with that of the theremin. Theremin? If didn’t know any better, I’d think that theremin is a type of mineral supplement, or chemical reaction, or something else along those lines. It is, however, the grandparent of all electronic instruments, a very unique and singular-sounding musical device that was invented by Leon Theremin in the 1920s. If you’ve ever listened to the songs like Good Vibrations, by The Beach Boys; Velouria, by The Pixies; Funeral Song, by Sleater-Kinney, or if you’ve watched any number of movies with spooky or alien-inspired soundtracks, it is quite likely that you’ve heard the theremin without realizing to what, precisely, it was you were listening.
Born in Russia in 1911 as Clara Reisenberg, Ms. Rockmore was blessed with perfect pitch —a familial trait— and was accepted to the St. Petersburg Imperial Conservatory at the ripe old age of four, the youngest violin student to ever be accepted at the musical institution. Suffice it to say, she was quite the virtuoso.
As the political and social landscapes in Russia changed during the revolutions in the latter part of the 19-teens and early 1920s, the Reisenbergs fled their home country, with the hopes of eventually making it to America. In December of 1921, their perseverance paid-off, and they made it to Ellis Island after a perilous journey across numerous countries and the Atlantic ocean. Starting where she left-off before fleeing her homeland, Ms. Rockmore began her violin lessons once more, but eventually had to sacrifice her beloved instrument because she’d developed arthritis in her bow arm by her teenaged years.
Ms. Rockmore met Leon Theremin in New York City in the late 1920s, and a long-standing and intriguing relationship was born. If you’re interested in more information on their rapport, or the strange case of Mr. Theremin and his association with espionage and the KGB, I highly recommend the documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey.
Fortunately for the young musical artist, the theremin doesn’t require the musician to hold or even touch any part of the instrument to play it– one simply has to move her or his hands closer to or further away from the device’s two antennas to control pitch and volume. With Ms. Rockmore’s classic training paired with her natural musical talents, she was soon making leaps and bounds in this strange, new, electronic music genre, and she starting a decades-long musical journey, playing with orchestras all over North America and touring with the likes of Paul Robeson.
Even though she embarked on her musical adventure as a young woman in the early decades of the 20th century, Ms. Rockmore didn’t release her first commercial album until 1977, in partnership with her sister, Nadia, and Robert Moog, inventor of the Moog Synthesizer, a favorite of rock bands old and new. After a long separation under very strange circumstances (Theremin disappeared from New York City in 1938), Ms. Rockmore and Mr. Theremin were reunited in 1991. The electronic inventor passed away in 1993, and five years later, the former violinist and Russian immigrant also passed at the age of 87.
It wasn’t until I did some research on Theremin that I even knew about Clara Rockmore, and the influence she had on the history of music in the 20th century, but I’m certainly glad I stumbled across her story! If I’ve piqued your interest, you hit-up YouTube for some theremin and Clara Rockmore videos– while the latter aren’t necessarily live, but are recordings of long-passed concerts, you can still get a good sense of the eerie, doleful sounds of the first electronic instrument and the woman who helped popularize it.
Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey (1994). Documentary.
From Russia With Love: The Strange Tale of Clara Rockmore and Leon Theremin. By David Selden for The Huffington Post. 2012. Available from The Huffington Post. Accessed April 11th, 2015.
Music Playlist: Songs With Theremin. 2005. Blog Critics. Available from Blog Critics. Accessed April 11th, 2015.
What woman artist, regardless of her art form, would you like to see represented here? Do you have a particularly inspirational woman from history whom you positively admire? Let us know in the comments below!