Who is Clara Rockmore?

The theremin, that weird, ethereal sounding electronic instrument used to such great effect by Led Zeppelin on “Whole Lotta Love" and "No Quarter,” and the Brian-Jones-era Rolling Stones on “Please Go Home,” isn’t an instrument often celebrated. But we wanted to shine some light on one of the world’s first electronic instruments, along with the accomplishments of Clara Rockmore, a pioneer in electronic music.

Born Clara Reisenberg on March 9th of 1911, Rockmore had a natural gift with the theremin. Though she initially was a studied and talented violinist, she had to give up her chosen instrument due to an arthritic injury in her bow arm after immigrating to the United States from Russia. But by good luck, she had been introduced to none other than Leon Theremin, or Lev Termen, inventor of — what else? — the theremin, and found that she had an innate knack for the instrument.

"I was fascinated by the aesthetic part of it, the visual beauty, the idea of playing in the air," Rockmore said. "And I loved the sound. I tried it, and apparently showed some kind of immediate ability to manipulate it.”

Clara Rockmore Plays "Song of Grusia"

But what exactly is the theremin? This early electronic instrument, controlled without any physical contact, is comprised of two antennas that are able to sense the location of the player’s hands. One hand is used to control the oscillators for frequency, while the other is used for volume. Both signals then can be amplified and sent to a speaker, emanating that eerie sound we’ve come to associate with science fiction.

Rockmore quickly developed her finger technique for playing the theremin, which gave her more precise control over the sounds she created, and began to play solo recitals and with groups like the Philadelphia Orchestra. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Gaining fame for her beautiful and accurate phrasing, as well as her handling of such a unique instrument, Rockmore released records, toured with other musicians, performed in large venues, and popularized the use of the theremin in many ways. Rockmore is an oft-overlooked pioneer in the history of electronic music. Although she passed away in 1998 at age 87, she helped pave the way for much of the electronic music we know today.

While “Good Vibrations” may be the song to immediately come to mind when thinking about the theremin, the Beach Boys actually used the electrotheremin, a more contemporary variation invented by Paul Tanner.

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