In 1927 The New York Times reported from Berlin about an astounding recent invention: a box with a brass rod and ring that, when the inventor moved his hands around them, produced a violinlike sound of “extraordinary beauty and fullness of tone.”
“He created music out of nothing but motions in the air,” the article said.
The inventor was Leon Theremin (born Lev Termen), a young Russian scientist whose fascinating life would later include spying for Soviet intelligence, serving time in a Siberian labor camp and inventing a host of things, including electronic bugs, an early television and an electronic security system at the Sing Sing prison in Ossining, N.Y. But his legacy lives on principally in the device named after him: the theremin, which introduced the age of electronic music.
Though it bombed as an instrument for the masses, partly because it is so difficult to play, Hollywood embraced it. The theremin, with its otherworldly, sliding woo-woo sound, was prominent in science fiction movies like “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and in other films, notably Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” and Billy Wilder’s “Lost Weekend.”
It captivated Robert Moog, who began building theremins before inventing his pioneering synthesizer in 1954. A well-received 1994 documentary, “Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey,” revived interest, and the theremin has since had renewed popularity in pop and rock bands.
But early on, the theremin also had a life in concert halls, thanks mostly to the woman considered its greatest virtuoso, Clara Rockmore, who died in 1998 at 88. Ms. Rockmore, a former violin prodigy, created a whole technique of playing. She performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, played Town Hall, had works written for her, toured with Paul Robeson and gave recitals — many with her sister, the noted pianist and teacher Nadia Reisenberg.
Mr. Moog persuaded Ms. Rockmore to put her artistry on record. A recording session in 1975 led to her first album, “The Art of the Theremin,” released on LP in 1977 and containing 12 numbers. Three decades later 13 previously unheard cuts from that session are available in a new release on the Bridge label, “Clara Rockmore’s Lost Theremin Album.”
NEW YORK TIMES: Good Vibrations
BRIDGE RECORDS: Clara Rockmore’s Lost Theremin Recordings
MYSPACE: Friends Of Clara Rockmore