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February 28, 2008

Clara Rockmore - The Art of the Theremin

There are few musicians who can really make their instrument speak. I don't just mean sound imitation or call-and-response, but really make an instrument provide the full range of expression found in the human voice. Charlie Parker, Son House, and Tom Cora were some of the few musicians who fully brought their instruments to life. Clara Rockmore was another. In her hands, a primitive electronic instrument became a voice that could sing, whistle, wail and cry.

Clara Rockmore was the world's only Theremin virtuosa. She brought the instrument into the public eye, and with it played things that were not only unthought-of, but actually were quite musical and profound. Hearing her play, you would have no idea the sounds are coming from a little box with two wires sticking out of it.

Musically, this album bears a lot of similarities to the Pablo Casals album I posted earlier today. The repertoire is mostly from the romantic and impressionist eras, with one early modern piece (the stunning Stravinsky Berceuse). And like that album, all the pieces are accompanied only by a piano, which happens to be played by Clara's skilled and sensitive sister, Nadia Reisenberg.

Biography from Wikipedia:

Rockmore was a child prodigy on the violin and entered the Imperial conservatory of Saint Petersburg at the age of five. She studied violin under the virtuoso Leopold Auer, and remains to this day the youngest student ever to be admitted to the institution. Unfortunately, bone problems due to childhood malnutrition forced her to abandon violin performance past her teen years. That however led her to discover the newborn electronic instrument and arguably become the greatest ever virtuosa of the theremin.

Rockmore had several gifts that enabled her to play the theremin so well. Her classical training gave her an advantage over the many theremin performers who lacked this background, including the instrument's inventor. She possessed absolute pitch from birth, helpful in playing an instrument that generates tones of any pitch throughout its entire range, including those that lie between the conventional notes. She had extremely precise, rapid control of her movements, important in playing an instrument that depends on the performer's motion and proximity rather than touch. She also had the advantage of working directly with Léon Theremin from the early days of the instrument's commercial development in the United States. Rockmore, as the mature musician she was, saw the limitations of the original instrument and helped to develop the instrument to fulfill her needs, making several suggestions to improve the theremin as a performing instrument. Such suggestions, like a faster volume antenna, wider musical range, and control over the instrument's tone colour were incorporated by the inventor in later versions. She had a special theremin tailored by Léon Theremin himself to meet her unique requirements.
Léon Theremin proposed to marry Clara several times, though she declined. For her birthday once, he made her a cake. When she approached it, the lights went on and the cake began to rotate. If that's not love, what is?

Clara Rockmore - Art of the Theremin
Year: 1987
Label: Delos
just listen.
mr | mp3 191-192kbps | w/o cover | 67mb

I was going to share Clara Rockmore's Lost Theremin Album, but her nephew spent most of his own money to produce it, and needs the sales. It's a really good album, and includes one of the most haunting versions of Summertime ever recorded. So if you like what you hear here, support the Clara Rockmore Foundation so he can continue to release her music.

also check out In Clara's Words - An interview Clara Rockmore gave to Bob Moog in 1977.

1 comment:

David Federman said...

I sprung for both Clara's albums and they are marvelous. There are times when I thought I was listening to a voice. Even friends who think the theremin is purely for sci-fi movies were moved.