- Sight & Sound
July 5th, 2012
Born in 1911, Clara Rockmore is widely regarded as the greatest Theremin player to have ever lived. A child prodigy, Clara began her musical career as a violinist studying with Leopold Auer, but gave up the instrument in her teens due to an arthritic condition in her bow arm. By this point she had immigrated to the US and befriended Leon Theremin, who had recently developed an instrument that bore his name, the Theremin.
Using radio waves, the Theremin could generate musical tones without the performer touching the instrument, as though it were pulling the sound from thin air. Rockmore became smitten by the instrument and quickly excelled at performing with it due to the control she learned as a violinist and the perfect pitch she inherited from her parents. Through her close relationship with Leon Theremin, Rockmore was able to influence the design and evolution of the instrument, suggesting changes such as lowering the profile of the instrument so the performer is more visible, increasing the sensitivity of the pitch antenna, and increasing range from three octaves to five.
A classically trained musician, Rockmore made orchestral appearances in New York and Philadelphia and amazed audiences in coast-to-coast tours with Paul Robeson, but it wasn’t until 1977 that she released a commercial recording called The Art of the Theremin. The album was recorded at the behest of Bob Moog and the record featured Rockmore performing with Nadia Reisenerg.
Clara Rockmore passed away in 1998 and though her health had been in rapid decline for almost a year she professed her determination to live to see the birth of her grandniece. Fiona Nadia Sherman was born May 8th 1998 and true to her word Rockmore passed from the Earth only two days later.
Shortly after her death a relative of Rockmore's approached Bob Moog about restoring Rockmore's Theremin to working order. Moog disassembled and cleaned the Theremin and replaced the frayed wires, thus returning the instrument to working order.
Photo courtesy of RCATheremin.com
Clara Rockmore was an inspiration to Dr. Moog and he marvelled at her extraordinary talent. Some would say that Rockmore is the World's First Female Electronic Musician. Whether this is true or not, she is certainly the World's First true Theremin Virtuosa.
Watch Dr. Moog and Clara discuss their fascination with the Theremin.
Theremins are still produced and played today. Learn more about the Theremin here.