Saturday, June 14, 2008


“I, personally, have been trying for several years to widen the ranges of the orchestra in clear, determinate directions only... With Théremin’s instrument, one can find part of what I had in mind realized, and further, it presents unexpected possibilities of a new sonorous realm.” Ernst Toch

Yesterday, I finally found and watched the excellent documentary - Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey which I absolutely recommend as a must see for anybody interested in music history and American-Russian Cold War relations. It is rather difficult to find on the Internet but I think there are some torrents remaining around.

The movie struck me because it's not just a story about a talented scientist/musician who made a musical revolution that redefined music, it is
also a sad, emotionaly rich love story about a man ruined by his homeland's violent politics and Cold War psychological destruction that separated him from his wife and even from his much adored child/instrument.

This album could be the greatest tribute to the revolutionary genius of Leon Theremin.

Leon Theremin invented the theremin (also called the thereminvox) in 1919, when his country was in the midst of the Russian Civil War.

Léon Theremin fled to America and set up a laboratory in New York in the 1930s, where he developed the theremin and experimented with other electronic musical instruments and other inventions. These included the Rhythmicon, commissioned by the American composer and theorist Henry Cowell. During the jazzy 1930's Theremin worked closely with fellow Russian émigré and theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore.

He developed performance locations that could automatically react to dancers' movements with varied patterns of sound and light. After the Soviet consulate had apparently demanded he divorce Katia and while working with the American Negro Ballet, the inventor fell in love with and married the young prima ballerina Lavinia Williams. His marriage to the African-American dancer caused shock and disapproval in his social circles, but the ostracized couple remained together.

Theremin abruptly returned to the Soviet Union in 1938. At the time, the reasons for his return were unclear: some claimed that he had been kidnapped from his studio by the KGB.

Many years later, Theremin told Bulat Galeyev that he decided to leave himself because he was anxious about the approaching war. Shortly after he returned, on Joseph Stalin's order, he was imprisoned at Butyrka and later sent to work in the Kolyma gold mines. Although rumors of his execution were widely circulated, Theremin was, in fact, put to work in a sharashka, together with Andrei Tupolev, Sergei Korolev, and other well-known scientists and engineers. The Soviet Union "rehabilitated" him in 1956.

While working for the KGB, in 1945 Theremin also invented The Thing, as it was called, an ingenious listening device used during the Cold War for eavesdropping on the American ambassador to the Soviet Union.

After 51 years in the Soviet Union Léon Theremin started travelling, first visiting France in June 1989 and then the United States in 1991, each time accompanied by his daughter Natalia, where he was reunited with Clara Rockmore who performed a number of concerts at this time. He also made a demonstration concert at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague in early 1993 before dying in Moscow in 1993 at the age of 97.

Clara Rockmore (1911-1998) is generally considered to be the most accomplished performer ever of the theremin instrument.

Clara Reisenberg 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.

Her classical training gave her an advantage over the many theremin performers who lacked this background. 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. She had a special theremin tailored by Leon Theremin himself to meet her unique requirements.

While many listeners have heard the theremin played poorly or used mostly as a spooky special-effects device, Rockmore used it to perform classical works. Under her control, the theremin sounded like a blend of the cello, violin and human voice.

The theremin is one of the earliest electronic musical instruments, and the first musical instrument played without being touched. The controlling section usually consists of two metal antennas which sense the position of the player's hands and control radio frequency oscillator(s) for frequency with one hand, and volume with the other. The electric signals from the theremin are amplified and sent to a loudspeaker.
The theremin is associated with "alien", surreal, and eerie-sounding portamento, glissando, tremolo, and vibrato sounds, due to its use in soundtracks such as Spellbound, The Lost Weekend, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Theremins are also used in art music (especially avant-garde and 20th century "new music") and in popular music genres such as rock and pop. John Otway regularly uses a Theremin in his performances, as does Claudio Sanchez of Coheed and Cambria while playing guitar. Jean Michel Jarre also used it on his album Oxygène.



noah said...

more clara rockmore more more more please this is the greatest thing i have seen in my life!!!

Panda Slayer said...

Tnx:) You should find and download a beautiful documentary about Theremin and Clara called "Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey" (1994)

It should be still available on some torrent sites:)

Jim said...

hey there, thanks for the album. found some rapidshare links for that documentary.

Nice blog

Indrayudh Shome said...

God bless you!!!

Anonymous said...

thank you for sharing this! :)

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