Something in the Air
Like Celine Dion and Michael Jackson, she had a gift that could never be bought – the gift of absolute pitch. If you threw Clara a song, she could play you back the notes by ear. She could do this on the piano at the age of two, because she was a v-i-r-t-u-o-s-o. And when she was four, she stood up on a table and breathed rapid hellfire from behind the chin rest of the devil’s instrument. This prowess earned her a place at Russia’s premier music school, the Saint Petersburg Imperial Conservatory, where she began studying the following year.
Clara Reisenberg was born on 9 March, 1911 in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, which was under Russian rule at that time. Her childhood was not spent grazing knees or climbing trees, but rather honing a musical ability that lived deep inside her, like a crystalline pearl at the bottom of the ocean. This irrepressible talent, coupled with the tutelage of esteemed Hungarian violinist Leopold Auer, was sure to guarantee a lifetime of recognition. But there was modern history’s most gruelling chapter to contend with first (we are in early 20th century Russia, after all.) Clara and her family – including her pianist sister Nadia, with whom she would often partner for concerts – fled the hardship and turbulence of their post-revolution homeland in 1921, aboard a steam ship to America.
Clara and Nadia bankrolled their passage with concert earnings, and they continued to light up the stage when they arrived in New York, Clara’s reputation for exceptional violin playing continuing to gather pace all the while. But, after a childhood of malnutrition, nature was to teach her a cruel lesson by striking down her bow arm down with arthritis, forcing her to abandon her first love.
But as one proverbial door slams shut, another flings open – or eerily creaks on its hinges, as the case may be. A Russian physicist called Lev Termen – who would later Americanise his name to Leon Theremin – had recently invented the world’s first electronic instrument; one that operated without the need of the human touch. It was called the Ether Wave Instrument, or theremin, and Clara became its star player. Having acquired an intense ability for rapid controlled movement during hours and hours of violin practice, she was well-equipped to tailor-make a fingering technique. But more importantly, she used her keen understanding of the instrument to suggest improvements which included the creation of a faster volume antenna, locking herself in to the machine forever.
The theremin was born of Soviet scientific research into proximity detectors. The Kremlin summoned Leon to play show-and-tell with his instrument at a time when electronic engineering was still in its embryonic stage, and radio barely out of diapers. Keen to extol the technological advancements of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin sent Leon on a world tour to sell the idea that, “communism equals socialism plus electrification.”
The mechanical blueprint had been crafted, but Leon needed a soul to breathe life into the disembodied instrument. Clara and Leon’s path had crossed some years ago, and she was dazzled by the musical possibilities the theremin promised in the wake of her physical disability. She took to it immediately and, at the same time, began courting its besotted inventor (with whom she later broke it off to marry a man named Robert Rockmore, taking his name in the process).
For her 18th birthday, Leon presented her with a cake that burst into flame and began to spin on its axis as soon as she approached it. She must have looked like a sorcerer, using her body to make magical things happen from afar, because whenever she would back away, the spectacle would cease. However, this was not some sort of devilish sorcery, but rather the enchanted cake had been cooked up with the same clever form of electronic artistry as the theremin.
The fundamental idea of the instrument is that every movement you make becomes a perfect symbiosis of sound and motion. The performer stands in the electromagnetic field that exists between each of its two metal antennae. Any hand – or indeed, mechanical object – that hovers between these antennae (one controlling pitch, the other volume) can interrupt the magnetic field, causing a signal that is amplified by a component in the theremin. So, the player uses their upper limbs to bend the air around into sounds. But because there is no physical contact with the instrument, playing the theremin in an exacting, melodic way requires sharp attention to pitch and, naturally, Clara was to excel at this.
Clara had always wanted to be a serious musician. She adored playing Bach. “I want to make beautiful music rather than sound effects,” she told Robert Moog in a 1977 interview. “That is the core of my approach to the theremin. This is something very dear to my heart.” Her first theremin concert took place in the US in 1934, but it wasn’t until decades later – in 1977 – that she finally released her one and only album, The Art of the Theremin, thanks to Moog. Her sister, Nadia, provided the piano accompaniment to what the cover-mount proclaims as, “the most original, novel and difficult to play of all electronic musical instruments. No other thereminist has ever come close to Clara Rockmore’s artistry.”
Clara Rockmore died in her Manhattan apartment on 10 May 1998, just two days after the birth of the grandchild she had been so desperately awaiting. The videos of her gracefully teasing out strange, lachrymose sounds from the air, eyes half-shut, hair loosely piled up on her head and tied with a silver ribbon are shiver-inducing and totally mystifying. To say she is an icon, and that her influence stretches out across the electronic music canon barely skims the surface. But like so many other pioneering women in music, her talents and worth have largely gone unnoticed, even though she first perfected, then mastered the world’s first ever electronic instrument.
Illustration by Charlotte Procter