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Clara Rockmore: Story of the theremin virtuoso who inspired Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones

By FnF Desk | PUBLISHED: 09, Mar 2016, 18:36 pm IST | UPDATED: 09, Mar 2016, 18:36 pm IST

Clara Rockmore: Story of the theremin virtuoso who inspired Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones Clara Rockmore was a pioneer of electronic music and, had she still been alive, would have turned 105 today.

Rockmore was a master of the theremin - the world's first electronic music instrument and first instrument that could be played without being touched. The theremin inspired the likes of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and the Beach Boys. And was the instrument that led to the creation of the first synthesizer.

On what would have been her 105th birthday, Rockmore has been commemorated with a Google Doodle. The interactive game teaches you to play the theremin by hovering your mouse over the notes to play a melody.

Who was Clara Rockmore?

Rockmore was a talented musician from a very young age, and she went to be a pioneer of electronic music.

From the age of two she was pitch perfect and could identify melodies on the piano. At four she became the youngest ever violin student to be accepted to the St Petersburg Imperial Conservatory. She had to perform her audition  standing on a table, because she was still so small, according to the Nadia Reisenberg and Clara Rockmore Foundation.

Her life was thrown into turmoil when Rockmore's family decided to flee the USSR's revolutionary government. The Reisenberg family - as Rockmore was born - escaped in a horse-drawn carriage.

"It was a long journey," said Nadia Reisenberg, Rockmore's sister. "We had to cross many borders illegally, and we travelled without knowing whether or not we would ever reach a country from which we could get a visa to the US."

The family finally made it to the US in 1921, and soon after Rockmore developed arthritis in her bow arm. But her dream to be a musician wasn't over. In New York she met Louis Theremin, the inventor of the world's first electronic instrument.

"I was fascinated by the aesthetic part of it, the visual beauty, the idea of playing in the air," said Clara, according to the Foundation. "I tried it, and apparently showed some kind of immediate ability to manipulate it."

Rockmore switched to the theremin as her primary instrument and soon became its "star performer".

Rockmore was such a pioneering theremist, the name given to performers who played it, that she influenced the design of consecutive iterations of the theremin. In the late 1920s she helped her friend Louis Theremin add extra features to the design, including "aerial fingering" to change notes.

How did the theremin influence music?

You might recognise the sound of the theremin from the theme song to Midsomer Murders, and films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, Spellbound and The Lost Weekend.

Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page was also known for keeping a theremin onstage, which he played during extended versions of "Whole Lotta Love" and "No Quarter". And Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones used it in the band's 1967 albums "Between the Buttons" and "Their Satanic Majesties Request".

Another famous proponent of the theremin was Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Wilson thought the instrument's high-pitched, otherworldly voice was magical. The main melody of "Good Vibrations", the Beach Boys' first number one track that sold a million copies, was played on a theremin.  

The theremin's greatest influence on contemporary music was probably its impact on Robert Moog, the creator of the first voltage-controlled synthesizer.

The Beatles, the Doors and the Byrds all used Moogs as part of their search for "psychedelic" sounds. When the Rolling Stones had a Moog shipped from the US customs officers spent three hours taking it apart to look for drugs.

The analogue synthesizer laid the ground for the digital ones that followed. The Moog synth has also been the subject of a Google Doodle.

How the theremin works

  •     The theremin has two antennas - a vertical one on the right hand side that controls pitch, and a horizontal one on the left for volume.
  •     The respective hands move closer and further from the antennas to produce sound.
  •     Moving your pitch hand closer towards the vertical antenna produces a higher note, and further away produces a lower one.
  •     With the horizontal volume antenna, the further away you move your hand the louder the sound becomes.
  •     Theremists normally use subtle gestures to create vibratto, which makes the notes warmer.
  •     On Rockmore's advice, Louis Theremin introduced "aerial fingering" in a later design, which lets the musician change notes with different hand gestures.