Josh Rutner

saxophone, etc.

Episode 38: The Art of the Theremin (Clara Rockmore, 1977)

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In December 1968, a children’s opera premiered in Hamburg, Germany called Help, Help, The Globolinks! In it, the composer and lyricist, Gian Carlo Menotti allegorizes his get-off-my-lawn-you-kids-with-your-rock-’n’-roll-and-hula-hoops anxieties about the shrouding of melodic, old-fashioned music by what he saw as the dark clouds of electronic and computer music rolling in. The opera’s plot is simple enough: Squishy and squiggly monsters from outer-space—the titular Globolinks—have landed on earth and are turning humanity into hunks of angular metal as they bleep-bloop along. While traditional methods of warfare—tanks, cannons, guns—fail against the comically horrible creatures, it is discovered that the only sure way to prevail against them is via music. You know, proper music. Our heroine appears in the form of a young schoolgirl named Emily whose practiced, controlled, and melodious violin playing leads the charge toward scattering and finally reversing the alien threat.

We might reimagine this opera with Clara Rockmore as the heroine, except, rather than using an acoustic instrument like the violin to repel the creatures, she instead tames the great and powerful theremin into doing her bidding, drawing from it—in essence, through drawing with her hands about it—not the “spooky noises” of horror films and thrillers, but great masterworks of the past, replete with “humanistic” vibrato. Those Globolinks wouldn’t know what hit ’em.

Rockmore herself, like young Emily in Menotti’s opera, began her music career as a violinist. She was a prodigy, in fact. But after developing an unbearable pain in her bow arm from, as she tells it, practicing the hell out of the Beethoven Concerto in the weeks and months following the death of her mother, she eventually needed to hang the instrument up. But the music she loved remained in her head and ears and all she needed was a mode of expressing it.

Enter the enigmatic Russian electrical engineer, inventor, and cellist Lev Sergeyevich Termen—anglicized as Léon Theremin—who, in 1918, designed the first version of what would eventually become known as, simply, the theremin, a musical instrument that could be played without being touched.

Theremin gained a private audience for his new instrument with Vladimir Lenin at the Kremlin in 1922, performing for him, among other things, Camille Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan,” a gliding and shimmering piece originally written for cello—a piece which Rockmore too, perhaps as an homage to Theremin, would perform throughout her career and eventually record on 1977’s The Art of the Theremin, the only album she released in her lifetime, and this week’s Album of the Week.

Theremin was sent by Joseph Stalin to the US in 1927 on a temporary visa, to “demonstrate inventions” and, at the same time—so the story goes—to relay any secrets of American technologies back to the motherland. A real live Soviet spy, he was! The details of his eventual departure remain a bit hazy, but after ten years living on a perpetually extended six-month visa, Professor Theremin was mysteriously spirited away to a prison camp in Russia to invent surveillance devices for the government, a time which produced at very least a device still very much in use today: the wireless bug. 

The theremin, visually speaking, consists of a cabinet—though modern, transistorized versions are more like a sleek slab of wood—with a horizontal antenna jutting out to the left to regulate volume—the closer the hand, the quieter the output—and a vertical antenna shooting upward to regulate pitch—the closer the hand, the higher the tone.

When Theremin and Rockmore, Russian immigrants both, had met early on to discuss his instrument, he, realizing she was a violinist, offered to switch the placement of the antennas since she was used to producing vibrato with her left hand, rather than the right. But she, full of youthful enthusiasm and, let’s be honest, crushing hard on the svelte, lab-coated professor, insisted that she learn the instrument as it was invented. What Rockmore did eventually take issue with was the slow volume response in the left hand—“molasses,” she called it, “you couldn’t shake it off”—and the limited range of her 1929 RCA model, both of which Theremin was happy to rectify with a custom cabinet made especially for her.

The sales brochure for the RCA version touted “AN ABSOLUTELY NEW UNIQUE MUSICAL INSTRUMENT ANYONE CAN PLAY,” and it’s certainly true that it is very easy to produce a sound—the same way anyone can make sounds on a piano, or the drums, or harp; all one needs is a working limb or two—but to control it, to make music in the traditional sense, proved exceedingly difficult and the general public certainly wasn’t willing to put in the hours. And because of this, most players simply took the sweeping, gestural portamenti and wobbling vibrato they were able to pull from the strange antenna’d cabinet as a defining characteristics of the instrument.  

For Rockmore, however, the instrument was both theoretically and practically no less expressive or nimble than a violin or a voice, particularly in the hands of one with her ear and her technique—“aerial fingering,” she called her ability to articulate intervallic passages—and she would make her mark playing romantic works from the classical repertoire—works that are relatively slow-paced, broad and emotional, and where occasional expressive slidings from one pitch to another are natural and welcome. The lead-off track of the record is one that shines a light on the vocal quality of the Theremin. “Vocalise” was written by Rachmaninoff to be sung without words, on the vowel of the singer’s choice. Rockmore’s version is lovely, dynamic—singing, even.

Throughout The Art of the Theremin, Rockmore is gorgeously accompanied by her older sister, Nadia Reisenberg on piano. The two lead the listener down a path well-trodden, to be sure, but no less beautiful for it. Both pour their souls into squeezing powerful harmonies and aching melodies out of their respective instruments.

A favorite of mine on the record is the second track, Rachmaninoff’s “The Songs of Grusia,” a song originally composed for tenor voice and piano based on a poem by Pushkin. In the English version, the lyrics tell of a man imploring a Circassian maiden not to sing the old songs of Grusia—Grusia being the country of Georgia—because they flood his mind with otherwise-repressed memories of his long-lost beloved. The piano accompaniment is brutally beautiful here, descending and descending as we picture the man’s heart sinking, as his memories return one by one.

When we first meet Clara Rockmore in the opening scene of the 1993 documentary called Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, she is gently admonishing the camera man for standing too near, explaining, “Nobody can stand anywhere near me, because then I can’t tune or do anything. That’s a crazy instrument; it’s not your fault.”

Since the time of Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera, the Globolinks of electronic music have returned and more or less set up shop for good, but, like most tales of immigration, the new is never as nefarious as detractors claimed out of fear, and, importantly, the more we learn about and from the other, the better off we all become.

Hear, hear.

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.