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Clara Rockmore — and a wee music lesson

Today’s Google Doodle (you know — the little piece of artwork on Google pages) honors Clara Rockmore, a Theremin artist who lived from 1911 to 1998. A Theremin, of course, is an electronic musical instrument that was invented just over a hundred years ago and that was refined in the decades that followed. Most people recognize Theremin music as providing the eerie warbling music used in early science fiction films.

Clara Rockmore was trained as a violinist. She had perfect pitch. She also had a very refined and sensitive musicality. If you haven’t listened to the YouTube performance above, do that now, and then let’s talk about her Theremin technique, which was much more highly developed than other Theremin players.

First, about the Theremin itself. If you look closely, you’ll see that Rockmore’s right hand is near a vertical metal shaft. That’s called an antenna, but actually it’s the plate of a capacitor. The nearness (or distance) of the hand from the antenna varies the pitch of the Theremin. (The circuit is an oscillator circuit, or LC circuit, in which the varying value of the capacitance against the inductance varies the rate of oscillation.) You’ll see that Rockmore’s right hand is near a horizontal metal loop. That, too, is an antenna. The nearness (or distance) of the left hand varies the volume of the Theremin. So you can see how the Theremin is played and how it is oddly analogous to playing the violin. The rapid wavering of the right hand produces vibrato, with a hand motion similar to what a violinist uses for vibrato.

We need another musical term — portamento. To play (or sing) portamento is to glide from note to note like a slide whistle. Here’s a YouTube video of a slide whistle gliding portamento down in pitch and back up again:

Not all instruments can be played portamento. A piano, obviously, moves precisely from pitch to according to which key is struck. Portamento playing is possible on the violin by just sliding the finger along the fingerboard. Singers can move portamento from note to note, but they’d better watch out, because portamento singing can be in very bad taste. As for the Theremin, most Theremin players always play portamento, because that’s the easy way to play the Theremin.

The piano accompaniment here, by the way, is playing arpeggios — chords in which the notes are not sounded all at once, but rather in a sequence.

What was remarkable about Blackmore’s playing is that she developed those complex movements of the right hand that enabled her to move precisely from pitch to pitch and note to note, the way a violinist changes notes by changing fingers rather than by sliding a single finger. She does “bend” some notes, but it’s always in good taste. I doubt that there will ever be another Theremin player like her.


One Comment

  1. Henry wrote:

    I enjoyed it, but you have her using her right hand twice when she is actually left handing the Horizontal though you follow up with left hand in the next sentence…cheers. The music is too sad for me. I’m and old R&R boy.


    Wednesday, March 9, 2016 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

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