Vol. 2, Issue #1 Feb. 2nd - Feb. 15th, 2007

Tiger Beat From Hell
By: Wilhelm Murg

The Theremin: Entertaining People With Your Hands

Bridge, the innovative classical CD company, is famous for putting out both music from the romantic period, like Schubert and Brahms, and the most challenging works from the post-modern age, like the music George Crumb, John Cage, and even the free jazz of Cecil Taylor. Their latest release, “Clara Rockmore’s Lost Theremin Album,” comes from such a niche of esoterica that it may be their boldest statement yet. In both packaging and content you can tell it comes from another age and another mindset that is lost to the past; it is an amazing, final statement on a concept in classical music that would soon be abandoned.

The crisp black & white photo of Rockmore (1911–1998) with her hair pulled back and in clothes becoming of a woman undertaking a classical recital, harkens back to the cold, almost austere look that female classical musicians had on the covers of albums from the 1950s – before the companies played up the allure of mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli’s eyes, or the natural glamour girl beauty of the great cellist Orfa Harnoy. The concept of the album is just as alien, as Rockmore was THE virtuosi, bar none, of the Theremin, and the album is a straight-faced recital of some of the most beloved masterpieces of classical music on an instrument more often associated with the “atonal” works of radical electronic composers and flying saucer movies from the 1950s. To understand where all this comes from, we have to go back to Russia before World War II.

Leon Theremin (his name was Americanized from the Russian “Lev Terman”) invented the first electronic instrument in 1919, which he named (ironically enough) “The Theremin.” It was unique in that it is not touched when played; the performer moves his or her hands around two antennae; one controls the volume and the other controls the pitch. Back in Russia, Theremin demonstrated his amazing invention to Vladimir Lenin, and the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars took lessons from Theremin and became obsessed with the instrument. He had 600 units built, and sent Leon around the world to demonstrate the superiority of this commie instrument to us slack-jawed yokels here in the West. Leon ended up in America and allowed RCA to manufacture the instrument, but it was released just after the stock market crash of 1929 and it failed commercially. However, everyone seemed to understand the importance of the instrument; it was the true beginning of the electronic music revolution.

Locally, fans of the band Billy Joe Winghead have seen John Manson play a Theremin, which they house in a “fat-shaker” from the 1950s with flame jobs painted on it. Whereas while Mason uses the Theremin like a psychedelic surf guitar, Clara Rockmore played her Theremin with the precision of a virtuoso violinist.

Rockmore was a Lithuanian violin prodigy, but due to physical problems caused by childhood malnutrition, she had to give up the violin. But she later discovered the Theremin. She had perfect pitch and saw the instrument as viable as a violin or cello for interpreting music. She also worked with Leon Theremin on creating a custom instrument to her specifications, and she came up with a fingering technique that allowed her to play fast passages. She toured with the great African-American singer and actor Paul Robeson, who after dealing with Jim Crow laws in America his whole life, would controversially go on to support the Soviet Union, but it’s not known how much of an influence the young Rockmore’s friendship was on Robeson’s interest in the USSR.

After WWII, there was heavy interest in electronic music, and more electronic instruments began to be invented, but there was still an interest in the Theremin, especially by the inventor Robert Moog (1934-2005). Moog built his first Theremin in 1949 and went on to market Theremin kits through electronics hobbyist magazines. In the 1960s, Moog would further change the musical world with his own Moog Synthesizer, which he developed from what he learned by experimenting with the Theremin.

During the 1950s, the Theremin would become popular in film soundtracks, such as “Spellbound,” “Lost Weekend,” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” but the instrument was soon eclipsed by other electronic instruments, especially those created by Moog. It is interesting that the album that put Moog’s invention on the map, Wendy Carlos’ “Switched-On Bach” (1968), was also a classical recital, but by 1968 the concept of electronic interpretations of classical music was seen as a novelty rather than “actual music” (even with the support of Glenn Gould, one of the greatest Bach keyboard interpreters of the 20th century, who wrote the album’s liner notes).

All that leads us up to this 1975 recording, now released as “Clara Rockmore’s Lost Theremin Album.” Robert Moog was able to refurbish Rockmore’s custom Theremin, which time had ravaged. (Theremin himself was not able to help, as he was still living in Russia after having helped the KGB develop listening devices in the 1960s.) After soldering the loose connections and replacing the fried wires, they spent days trying to get it to sound the way Theremin had designed it. Once the sound was achieved, tears came to Rockmore’s eyes; she never thought she would be able to play the instrument again.

This album is a testament to those forgotten days, when classical music was still adventurous, before it became an affectation for the anal-retentive and the bourgeoisie. Bach’s “Air on a G-String” is nearly heartbreaking in the way Rockmore actually puts emotion into the Theremin, yet at the same time, there is that “Mars Attacks” tone to it that makes it seem like a lullaby for bubble-headed aliens. Gershwin’s “Summertime” is harrowing in its bluesy cry, but there is still something otherworldly about it. Rockmore reaches into the depths of her soul on a nocturne by Chopin, and you almost forget that you are listening to an electronic instrument.

Listening to the album now is like getting hit in the face with something from another planet. It’s brilliant, highly traditional, totally experimental, strange, heartwarming, and beautifully odd all at the same time. Ultimately, it’s a lost masterpiece that shows us that feelings can come through any instrument, even one played by waving your hands through the trembling air. For more information visit BridgeRecords.com.

©2006 NONCO Media, L.L.C.