Clara Rockmore gave this interview to Robert Moog on November 1, 1977 on the occasion of the publication of the record The Art of the Theremin. Moog cleared up the genesis of the interview in a message to Reid Welch and the Levnet forum on October 6, 1997: “‘In Clara’s Words’ was an ‘interview’ that I conducted with Clara for the purpose of presenting her views of the theremin to the general public. I edited it and had it printed, and then included it in the press kit that I gave out at the press reception for Clara’s record. After that we distributed it to people who expressed an interest in the record.” (Valerio Saggini)
Moog: Clara, how do you regard the theremin? What is your approach to the instrument?
Rockmore: 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.
Moog: What is your advice to people who want to learn to play the theremin?
Rockmore: 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?
Moog: From your point of view, what are the theremin’s musical limitations?
Rockmore: 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.
Moog: What are the theremin’s unique advantages?
Rockmore: 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.
Moog: How does the theremin fit in with today’s electronics-conscious music scene?