This’ll be a short one, because I want to get right to the music.
A few years ago I had some friends over and I played them what you’re about to hear (video below). I asked them to listen carefully and then guess what the instrument was. No one got it, although the one I thought was the closest was… wait for it… the saw. Yes, the common saw, which can be considerably more expressive than you might have thought if you’ve never seen one played. Yes, I said it: played. But let’s not quibble; we’re not here to discuss the saw or saw-playing. That’s right, I said it again: playing.
Moving on, the instrument under discussion today is the Theremin: both what you know about it and what you thought you knew about it. I’ve a feeling that of all the people in the world I could be writing for, in all the world, this is the group most likely to know about the Theremin. In fact, I’m hoping to see input from some of you who know more than we have here. Let’s see.
And so, from Wikipedia:
• The Electro-Theremin (or Tannerin after Paul Tanner who played it in several productions including three tracks for The Beach Boys), built by Bob Whitsell in the 1950s does not use heterodyning oscillators and has to be touched while playing, but it allows continuous variation of the frequency range and sounds similar to the theremin.
• A theremin was not used for the soundtrack of Forbidden Planet, for which Louis and Bebe Barron built disposable oscillator circuits and a ring modulator to create the electronic tonalities used in the film.
• Apart from a few episodes where an electronic organ or synthesizer was used, the theremin-like sound on the original Star Trek theme was actually provided by renowned studio soprano Loulie Jean Norman until her voice was removed in later seasons. Soprano Elin Carlson sang part of the theme when CBS-Paramount TV remastered the program's title sequence in 2006.
It gets better. The guy’s name was Termen, Lev Sergeevich Termen, and he called himself Léon Theremin in the West. Fleeing the Russian Revolution, he toured Europe with his instrument, playing to full houses. When he found his way to the U.S., he patented his device and sold the manufacturing rights to RCA, who released it about the time the U.S. stock market collapsed, marking the advent of the Great Depression, whereupon everyone forgot about Léon Theremin, his weird instrument and his shows. Epic poor timing, Lev.
And now we enter the fun portion of today’s missive: the conspiracies. One says that he was kidnapped by the KGB and spent years in a Russian Gulag, the other is that he fled back to Russia to escape from debtors. And now we’re done with the conspiracies. The instrument received a brief renaissance after the Second World War, but that interest faded with the introduction of newer, more expressive electronic instruments. But a core of enthusiasts remained, and here from Wikipedia: a niche interest in the theremin persisted, mostly among electronics enthusiasts and kit-building hobbyists. One of these electronics enthusiasts, Robert Moog (rhymes with vogue), began building theremins in the 1950s, while he was a high-school student. Moog subsequently published a number of articles about building theremins, and sold theremin kits that were intended to be assembled by the customer. Moog credited what he learned from the experience as leading directly to his groundbreaking synthesizer, the Moog.
Most of this stuff is available on sites, and I’ve covered the gist of it, but that’s not why we’re here. More than anyone else I know, you CA
people are most likely to know about the Theremin, how it works and how it sounds, and I’m pleased to write this for you, because I may have a surprise for you. People who know—or think they know—the Theremin may not have heard it played by Clara Rockmore, and that
is why we’re here today.
Born in what was then Lithuania, Clara Reisenberg was a prodigy on the violin and entered the Saint Petersburg Conservatory at five, where to this day she is still the youngest student ever admitted there. However, born in poverty, she was malnourished to the point that ensuing bone problems forced her to abandon the violin past her teen years. Which was when she found the Theremin. Her expressiveness on the instrument brought her to the attention of Léon Theremin, and she became both a protégée and a muse to him, and yes, there are stories that he proposed to her thrice, only to see her marry a lawyer named Rockmore. Whatever the truth of their relationship, it allowed her to suggest improvements to the instrument, which Theremin applied. These included lowering the profile of the instrument so more of the performer was visible, increasing the range from three octaves to five, increasing the sensitivity of the pitch antenna, and thanks to her training as a classical violinist, she had extremely precise, rapid movement control, which was important in an instrument dependent on motion and proximity rather than touch. I mean, where would you get training for an instrument that doesn’t depend on touch? Her unique fingering system allowed her to play fast passages and eliminated the often musically distracting “glide” effect other players of the instrument could not overcome. She also had perfect pitch, without which it would be impossible to play this instrument with tactile loci.
She gave concerts in Europe and the United States, often accompanied on the piano by her sister, Nadia Reisenberg, although she did not record any commercial material until 1977, which she did at the urging of Robert Moog, and accompanied by her sister. I don’t know if I’d want a whole night of this, but then, I’ve been to an evening with Itzhak Perlman, and that was pretty spectacular.
So you may think you know the Theremin’s capabilities, but if you think “Good Vibrations” is the best of the Theremin, if you’ve ever wondered what an instrument sounds like when it’s caressed by the touch of an angel, I got ya covered:
Here she is, playing Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” with her sister on piano. I’m glad there aren’t any distractions in this video. I find it haunting, melancholy, engrossing, but maybe that’s just me. I don’t want to say any more about this. This isn’t about the background, this one is about listening.
Readers should note that March 9, 2016 was the 105th anniversary of Clara Rockmore's birthday. Google paid a great tribute to her with the Google Doodle found here > Clara Doodle
Gilbert Klein has enough degrees and not enough stories. He’s been a radio talk show host, a nightclub owner, event producer, and has written two books: FAT CHANCE
about the legendary KFAT radio, and FOOTBALL 101
. He threatens to write one more. He spent 25 years in New York, 25 years in San Francisco, and is now purportedly retired in Baja.