Before there was Skrillex and laser lights there was Clara Rockmore, who could be described as the mother of electronic music. Born in Russia in 1911, by age 2, Clara was already a budding musical genius, displaying signs of perfect pitch and identifying melodies played on piano. At age 4, she was the youngest student to attend St. Petersburg Imperial Conservatory for violin. She was so small that she had to stand on a table to be seen by the auditors at her audition.
With the growing tensions for Jewish families in Europe at the time, Clara’s family escaped the USSR in a horse-drawn carriage. The family arrived in America in 1921. Shortly after their arrival, Clara developed painful tendonitis in her bowing arm, a symptom of childhood malnutrition. Unable to play the violin, Clara was looking for a new outlet for her music. Along came Leon Theremin, a musical knight in shining armor. He had invented an instrument that used two antennas to create different sine waves and when interrupted by the hands of the player, could produce a range of tones then amplified from within.
Clara was immediately intrigued, “I was fascinated by the aesthetic part of it, the visual beauty, the idea of playing in the air,” her foundation quotes her as saying. And of course, being the musical prodigy she was, she was amazing at manipulating what appeared to be absolutely nothing.
Clara immediately became the go-to theremist. She developed her own fingering technique that allowed her to have greater control over pitch and phrasing. Her talent and Theremin’s crush (he proposed to her many times) allowed her to give input on furthering the design. She suggested adding a broader range by taking the instrument from 3 octaves to 5 and making it more responsive to small gestures.
Though electronic music wasn’t topping the charts in the 1930s, Clara was a sight to be seen. Unlike the electronic music of today, played in seizure inducing rooms, Clara performed as a soloist at the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Toronto Symphony.
And while you probably have never heard of Clara or the theremin, both had an extremely important influence on modern music. The theremin has been used by the likes of Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones but may be most recognizable as the Twilight Zone-like sounds in the backing of The Beach Boys “Good Vibrations.” The invention of the synthesizer is also credited to be heavily based on the sounds and techniques used by Clara.
In honor of what would have been her 105th birthday, Google has featured Clara and her theremin in an interactive doodle. The doodle allows users to be taught a three part theremin lesson by Clara herself, using the mouse to hover over the notes, as would the players hands. This comes just in time for Google’s release of their Chrome Music Lab, which features a handful of online music experiments that allow anyone to explore how music works.
Check out this video of Clara Rockmore playing "The Swan," then head on over to Google and become a theremist yourself!
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