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In Clara’s Words

Rockmore: 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.

Moog: What sort of man was Professor Theremin? What things interested him?

Rockmore: 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 feel 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.

Clara Rockmore in 1945
Clara Rockmore in 1945.

Moog: Would you like to say anything about other people in your career?

Rockmore: 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.

Moog: If a composer were to write a piece for the theremin today, would you have any advice to give him?

Rockmore: 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 noises 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.

Moog: Did you think about making a record earlier in your career?

Rockmore: 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 ot 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.


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