Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Clara Rockmore and the Eerie Roots of Modern Electronic Music

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Clara Rockmore and the Eerie Roots of Modern Electronic Music

Article excerpt

Classically-trained Google users may recognize a favorite piece, Camille Saint-Saens's "The Swan," in the website's Doodle Wednesday, but be puzzled why it sounds so particularly eerie - or why the musician seems posed with an electric mailbox.

But astute electronic music fans may recognize Clara Rockmore, the ethereally appealing violinist who abandoned her beloved instrument for the theremin, an early predecessor of today's synthesizers, bringing concert hall-prestige to a mysterious Russian physicist's invention and helping to usher in today's electronic music scene.

Listeners today recognize the theremin for its "wooooo-eeeee" sound often heard in sci-fi films, from "The Day the Earth Stood Still" to "The Thing." But during the height of Ms. Rockmore's performing career, in the 1930s and 40s, the puzzle of how the young woman pulled precise music out of a box with tubes and antennae, without even touching it, was pure magic.

After a 1928 demonstration by the device's creator, Leon Theremin, Time magazine's critic marveled,

He placed his right hand near the upright rod; a musical note streamed from the box. He wiggled his right fingers; chords and phrases danced from the box. He moved his left hand towards the horizontal ring; the music roared deeply. He removed his left hand; the music whispered forth.Though Rockmore's renown for a classical theremin repertoire shifted attention to its musical potential, the theremin began life as a radio curiosity.

Dr. Theremin, then a scientist at the Physical-Technical Institute, managed to cancel out enough radio waves so that only the audible ones remained. Performers moved one hand through a vertical pole's electromagnetic field, using their own electric capacitance to direct the sound's pitch, while the other circled another field around a looped horizontal rod to direct volume.

But the jump from science experiment to musical fine-tuning put unique demands on performers.

"How to train the human hand to such precision that it could pick correct notes unerringly from midair, where inaccuracy of a finger's breadth, or even taking a deep breath at the wrong instant, would register a tonal error? …

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