An Interview With Clara Rockmore
1 November 1967
Clara, how do you regard the theremin? What is your approach to the instrument?
I am interested in making beautiful music rather than sound effects. That is the core of my approach to the theremin. This is something very dear to my heart.
From the beginning of electronic instruments, the interest of both composers, instrument builders, and performers, is that of a search for eerie, new, or strange sound effects. I have refused many lucrative offers to do just that for motion pictures. As a matter of fact, I turned down an offer to do the music for "Spellbound", which was not bad, but at that time I was playing Schelomo of Bloch with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
With the violin, there is a Heifetz, or you can play violin in a restaurant. But nobody thinks that the violin is only a restaurant instrument. With an electronic instrument the way you present it is the way people think of it. Ninety-nine percent of people think of electronic instruments as something for new, eerie, strange, ugly, strident sounds. Now, that is completely the opposite of my approach.
I am a violinist and a musician. I wanted to see if it were possible to use the theremin to make real music. Bach couldn't write for the theremin when he was alive, but there is no reason why I can't play Bach on the theremin today.
What is your advice to people who want to learn to play the theremin?
One should not learn to play the theremin as his first instrument. The first fundamentals of music should be learned on the piano. Every professional violinist learns by beginning on the piano. It's very difficult to learn to play the violin if you don't know music. You don't learn music on the violin. The usual method is to learn music on the piano, - how to read notes, theory, tonality, to be educated musically, first. To start from scratch on the theremin is wasting time.
There are so many children in schools now learning to play instruments. They play oboes, clarinets, so many kinds of instruments. They can learn to play the theremin because they already know music. When Professor Theremin was here in the United States he authorized me to teach theremin. I was the only one. I developed my own exercises and methods. I could teach today. I would like to leave the things that I discovered for myself to people who have an instrument and would like to learn. It's sort of a dream.
If theremins were built now, they might not be good enough for me to concertize on, but they would be good enough for other people to make music and enjoy it. Nobody knows what a new talent could do with it. While I still exist, there is a great deal I could pass on. But there is no point in giving lessons to people who do not have an instrument. For people to enjoy it, they must have an instrument and practice. But for people to come for half an hour and play my instrument, that is just curiosity.
People can learn to play the theremin. Why not? After all, I'm not an oddity. But they cannot expect just to walk over to it and play. Neither can they walk over to a violin and play, right?
From your point of view, what are the theremin's musical limitations?
The violin has four strings, which makes a big difference. What I do on the theremin is the same as a cellist would do if he had one string. It's that much more difficult. For instance, there is a very easy Handel violin sonata where you play rapidly from string to sting. It's very difficult on a theremin, because you have to use time to go the distance.
I adopted the violin vibrato for the theremin, but it's with the other hand. I try to emulate the violin bowing technique with my left hand. Since the theremin tone is constant, I have to artificially create a breath'. I have to play the rests as well as the notes. It doesn't stop by itself. You have to make an effort to play between the notes. If you don't want to connect the notes, you must dip your left hand down into the antenna, move your right hand to the desired pitch, or leave it in place for a repeated note, and bring back the left hand to the desired volume level.
What are the theremin's unique advantages?
Oh, well, marvelous things! Very fine violinists have a long bow. But as long as their bow may be, mine is longer. You have a musical nuance right there. A singer may have to take breaths even when it's not musically desirable, because he cannot continue to sing. I take the breaths when I think it's musically valid or necessary. I create a breath. I do it deliberately. I never do it because it's necessary. I can choose when I take it so it suits the music.
Think of a singer that has a basso, mezzo, soprano, and high soprano sing voice that encompasses all the musical ranges. Now this is something that you cannot find in any other instrument. The theremin has a delicacy and an ethereal quality that you can rarely obtain on the violin. There are certain nuances and qualities that you can obtain because you don't have anything in your hand. It really comes out of the air. That's why Prof. Theremin called it the Ether Wave Instrument. There is a certain terrific freedom. You feel like a conductor in front of an orchestra. There is no instrument between you and the music. Sure, there is a theremin standing there, but you're in the electromagnetic field. Every movement you make is a perfect synchronization of sound and motion.
How does the theremin fit in with today's electronics-conscious music scene?
This is a very favorite subject of mine. At this stage of my life, I am not that concerned with my career, because I've had it all, -eight suitcases of reviews. I don't need critical acclaim now. But I won't live forever. The world of electronic music is just at the beginning. It's growing and growing and growing. It is criminal not to know its beginnings. This time is much different than that time when I first played. Then I was accepted in spite of the instrument, because of my musicianship. Now I think the theremin should be accepted because of the interest in electronic musical instruments and what is possible electronically. And I want to stress that this is a very space-conscious time. Years ago when I played, nobody was going to the moon, yes? It was completely unknown. Today every child of seven goes to the supermarket with his mother and thinks nothing of the door opening before him, by magic. Now the world is geared towards that. So much is done in electronics. In a way, it shocks me and surprises me that the theremin is still the only space-controlled instrument. It is a voice for an artist to control. It is not a computer. The composers now, they put everything on a tape recorder and it always remains a tape thing. They do the most complicated things, but they put it together like mathematics. The theremin is just another musical voice that the artist can feel free to do with what he can. In all this time, nobody else thought of making a space controlled instrument better, -or worse! All the other electronic instruments are more mechanized.
What sort of man was Professor Theremin? What things interested him?
First of all, he was a wonderful man. A brilliant man, obviously. He built a television in his studio long before television came out. He was the first one to develop a system for Devils Island to detect escaping prisoners. If a prisoner tried to climb the wall, or if his feet even left the ground, an alarm would sound. He developed an instrument to protect infants in their cradles from intruders. If anyone would even bend over the cradle, an alarm would sound. All this is outside of his work with musical instruments.
He was a marvelous dancer. We used to go out dancing together. The people would put spotlights on us, and stop and applaud. This was a sort of hobby. He was not one of these professors that only sits and buries himself in books. He was a handsome man , an agile man, with a sense of humor, and just a wonderful guy. I fell miserable that I can't get someone to sponsor a visit here for him when I know he's dying to come.
I had a birthday party. As a surprise, he made a birthday cake for me that, as I approached it, the lights went on and the cake began to turn around without my touching anything. This is the kind of frivolous thing that he would take time to do.
Would you like to say anything about other people in your career?
Oh, yes! There are two prominent and famous people who played a great role in my career as a theremin player: Stokowski was absolutely enamored of my playing and of the instrument. I played with him at least four times as soloist with his orchestra. He used to come to my house. He gave me a compliment once by saying that 'you could make music on the kitchen stove'. He thought I was made of music. That was a great help in pushing my career. Another invaluable help was Josef Hofman who was at his prime and was one of the most famous pianists of that time. I played at a concert at which one of his students also played. He completely disregarded anyone else, climbed up on the stage, went down on his hands and knees, and said that the motion of my hands was much too beautiful to be hidden behind the instrument. He said that the instrument should be made shorter so that the hands would be exposed.
Josef Hofman did many mechanical things. He suggested that the theremin amplifier be separate so that the theremin itself would not have to be so bulky and tall. The player's hands are exposed, the instrument doesn't get overheated, and the tuning is much less frequent.
As personalities, Stokowski and Hofman were the most influential. As far as the development of my musicianship goes, Professor Leopold Auer was my teacher in Russia and the United States. He prepared me to come out from being a Wunderkind to change to be a real artist.
Anis Fuleihan wrote a concerto for theremin and orchestra. I performed it with Stokowski on several occasions, including one performance over the air. I also played it with other conductors. Other composers wrote works for theremin and orchestra, but I did not play them. I did not think them good enough, so I didn't include them in my repertoire. I don't play what I don't like.
If a composer were to write a piece for the theremin today, would you have any advice to give him?
Yes. The theremin is a melodic instrument. Modern composers are shying away from melody, frankly because I don't think they know how to write really beautiful melody. Mozart could write thousands of pieces and still find a new melody. Now they make sound effects and noised when they write. Sound effects and noises are not good enough for the theremin. If they would write melodic music, I would be delighted to play it.
Did you think about making a record earlier in your career?
I really was busy. I was on tour, playing about four concerts a week. I was young, and I didn't think that anything had to be perpetuated. I had a beautiful recording with Stokowski, taken off the air. It got broken. I never followed up to find out who did it, and I could not duplicate it.
I talked to Goddard Lieberson of Columbia Records. He thought I played beautifully. But he said there was not demand for theremin records. How could there be a demand for something that doesn't exist? In order to make it exist, you have to make a big promotion. At that time with the Oistrackhs and Heifetzs and all that, they weren't out to start promoting a record of one person.
It took a certain person by the name of Bob Moog to pry the present recording out of me.
Tagged: Clara Rockmore