In honor of Women’s History Month, we are throwing some shine on the most influential female industry figures who helped pioneer electronic and dance culture.
Clara Rockmore is the first bona fide female “star” of electronic music. Born Clara Reisenberg more than a century ago in 1911 in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, the young Clara was recognized early on as a virtuoso violin player and began a mentorship under famed Hungarian violinist Leopold Auer—at the age of four!
In 1917 came about a little thing known as a full-on Communist revolution. Her family shuffled around Europe, eventually immigrating to America. There, Clara would befriend Léon Theremin, maker of the eponymous theremin—one of the weirdest-yet-persistent electronic instruments, which still sporadically cycles around in popularity.
A Soviet byproduct like its creator, the theremin was patented in 1928 and was an immediate hit. It was originally born out of military research and is notable for a lot of reasons, but namely because it’s an instrument you can play without touching it. You can manipulate the sound based on where your hands are relative to its antennae.
Here’s Clara Rockmore playing Tchaikovsky’s “Berceuse.” And again, rocking a theremin on “The Swan”:
As you just heard, the theremin is a truly bizarre and unique instrument—somewhere between the violin, kazoo, and synthesizer. One antenna controls the frequency (so basically, the pitch) and the other the volume. Its wobbly, warbly sound often creates a sense of unease, which is why the sound became popular in early sci-fi and horror films and TV shows. Here’s a quick history on the theremin, which paints a much more detailed picture of its evolution.
Léon had a fascinating life himself. He fell in love with Clara and proposed to her, but she did not accept; instead, she married a man named Robert Rockmore. Léon disappeared for 30 years, rumored to have been thrown into a Russian prison camp, but historians have uncovered evidence saying he was evading a massive amount of debt.
Much like the way in which Wendy Carlos would help shape the Moog synthesizer decades later, so would Rockmore help refine the theremin and cement herself as a master of one of electronic music’s weirdest and oldest creations.
But the theremin itself benefitted from Léon and Clara’s relationship. Much like the way in which Wendy Carlos would help shape Robert Moog’s Moog synthesizer decades later, so would Clara help refine Theremin’s theremin and cement herself as a master of one of electronic music’s weirdest and oldest creations. The instrument was modified to fit her style.
Clara Rockmore toured the world with her masterful theremin sets and lived until the end of the 20th century. She was the first electronic music star—but one who never flamed out. Instead, she sustained, like one of those wonky tones of the theremin.