Google Doodle celebrates Clara Rockmore and the THEREMIN

March 9, 2016 • 7:15 am

Today is the 105th birthday of Clara Rockmore (1911-1988), a woman you’ve probably never heard of. But she was the greatest virtuoso of the theremin, that weird musical instrument patented by Russian Léon Theremin in 1928 (Rockmore and he were friends).  Over the years, the instrument became largely a novelty and fell into disuse—remember hearing it on the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”?—but was revived in 1993 by a prize-winning documentary movie. It’s still used, in a fancier electronic version, by modern musicians.

Below is a video of La Rockmore in her later years, playing the “The Swan” by Saint Saëns, from “Carnival of the Animals”. The vertical antenna controls the pitch, while the horizontal one controls the volume. Is there any other instrument that can be played without being touched? Today’s Torygraph has a really nice article on Rockmore, the theramin, and the Doodle.

There are many videos and audio clips of Clara playing the instrument; go here to see them (and don’t miss her rendition of “Summertime”).

And I couldn’t resist putting in this lovely version of “Over the Rainbow,” played by Peter Pringle on a 1929 RCA theremin:

Click on the screenshot below to go to today’s interactive Doodle, where you’ll get a chance to learn a few notes, advance through three lessons to see how well you’re doing, and, if you’re successful, hear Clara herself and get a chance to play the instrument, adjusting all its parameters.

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This is what you see when you click on the arrow from above:

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The first lesson:

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And if you do well in all three lessons, you hear a lovely melody from Rockmore (the one from the video above):

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And THEN, you can enjoy playing the theramin by yourself, adjusting the parameters (click the gear icon at lower left on screen):

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Here’s Theremin himself:

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and Clara in her younger days:

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Clara and Theremin, younger:

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Clara and Theremin, older:

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28 thoughts on “Google Doodle celebrates Clara Rockmore and the THEREMIN

    1. Loulie Jean Norman did the Star Trek vocal.

      Amazing how influential the instrument is, despite being rarely used. I suspect because it’s so difficult to play.

    2. I understand it was used for the theme to the 1960’s Outer Limits series. Very effectively, too.

  1. The theremin was also put to good use on the soundtracks for some Hollywood movies, Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend among them.

  2. I recall Keith Emerson using something called a ribbon synthesiser that gave a similar effect. I think that this might also have been what the Osmonds used on Crazy Horses.

  3. Please, therEmin — with an “e”! “TherAmin” must be some kind of nutritional supplement.

    I am a big theremin fan. I actually own one manufactured by a young Robert Moog (later of Moog synthesizer fame) ca. 1965.

    Russian-born Clara Rockmore was a talented violinist who had to stop playing because of repetitive-motion injuries to her hand. She was a champion of the use of the instrument in classical music.

    Meanwhile, in Hollywood, a dance band leader named Samuel Hoffman also played the theremin, and he got the job of recording the soundtrack for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Composer Miklos Rozsa incorporated the unearthly sound for the famous dream scene (with set decoration by Salvador Dali). Thereafter, Hoffman’s career was secure, playing for film music whenever an eerie, chilling sound was required. After Spellbound, his most famous score is The Day the Earth Stood Still.

    Clara Rockmore was famously dismissive of Hoffman and his “shpooky music”.

    I could go on all day about the theremin.

  4. I had the marvelous opportunity in the mid-1990s of hearing a LIVE(!!) Theramin at a showing of the silent 1924 Russian science-fiction film “Aelita: Queen of Mars” with a 7-piece orchestra (focused on the Theramin).

  5. Glad to know of your interest in the theremin, and for calling attention to the google doodle. I have a copy of that documentary on video someplace. Must watch it again sometime.

  6. My mother saw something about them at a local (to Montreal) museum once … I’ll have to pass this along.

    As for instruments playable without touching them, it depends on the scope of the instrument. Jean Michel Jarre uses a “laser harp”. Some claim the use is actually fake – that it isn’t connected to the synth at all. However, assuming that’s wrong, the hand only touches the beam of light. Does that count? Close …

    1. I think the Laser Harp counts, with the Theremin the hand is interacting with a radio frequency field so that is not much different to interacting with a laser light beam.

      One can play an electric guitar with an E-Bow, a magnetic device that vibrates the strings. One still has to fret notes with one’s left hand, so it really doesn’t count.

  7. Theremin is one of my favorite instruments. Like the Theremin, the Ondes Martenot has lent itself to some great works, like Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony.

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