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Kip Rosser Tells Us About Juliet Shaw and a Lost Theremin Treasure

Sandra Karen 3
Sandra and Karen Shaw, daughters of Juliet Shaw, demonstrate their mother’s playing technique.

Saggini: What kind of audio material is it? Is it rehearsals, concert recordings, radio broadcasts, or what else?

Rosser: Yes to all of the above and also interviews, family recordings made by Juliet, her husband and the two children. I have yet to hear everything, but there are also recordings of social gatherings where people talk of various things. There are also hours of recordings of Karen (a wonderful concert pianist) and her concerts.

Saggini: Tell me about the vinyl.

The recordings on vinyl vary in quality. Some feature live recordings of selections from Juliet’s early concerts in dating from 1950, ’51 and ’53. Others are home recordings; Sandra told me that Juliet had a friend with vinyl recording apparatus that he would bring to the house. There is a test pressing on a 33rpm record of Juliet’s 12 Piano Symphony. There’s a lot more, and none of it has ever been released in any form.

Saggini: To date, do you already have a precise idea of the archive’s contents, or do you think you might still have some surprises?

Rosser: There are very likely more surprises. Sandra has mentioned a number of things that she knows she’s seen, however, she has yet to find them. There are apparently additional vinyl recordings, photos, the aforementioned plans for building Juliet’s lucite theremin, and more.

Saggini: Tell us about Juliet’s theremin. You anticipated that, in your opinion, it is a custom instrument built by Léon Theremin himself. What drives you to think this?

Rosser: Nothing was anticipated on my part, nor does it have anything to do with my opinion. I was told about the instrument’s origins years ago when I first met Sandra and Karen. It was in June 2022 that I explained to Sandra that unless we could establish provenance of the instrument with some sort of documentation, that the account of Theremin himself creating a custom instrument, fascinating as it was, was only a nice story. I began searching for evidence; a receipt, a letter, a photograph, anything. As I made my way methodically through the collection, sorting and organizing, I found that Juliet herself both writes and speaks of her meeting with Leon Theremin in the early 1930s. She describes his very positive reaction to her playing ability and, offers to build her a theremin that has a range of six octaves, surpassing Juliet’s RCA Theremin, (which has a range of two octaves). I located a second affirmation of the theremin’s origin on the Thereminworld website – Juliet’s theremin is referred to in a 2016 post as being one of only two that Theremin built with the speaker situated in the cabinet. Finally, the writing on the chassis inside the theremin matches various samples of Theremin’s own handwriting. Both his handwriting samples and Juliet’s handwriting samples were examined (to see if the handwriting might actually be hers) – over the years and in various instances, everyone’s handwriting changes, but some of the Theremin samples are extremely close.

Saggini: Have you noticed similarities between the sound of this theremin and that of Clara Rockmore or Lucie Rosen?

Rosser: Juliet Shaw’s theremin sounds completely different. Its sonic character is entirely unique. Lucie Rosen’s and Clara Rockmore’s and Samuel Hoffman’s theremins have many more overtones and harmonics that give their theremins a more buzzy quality. Juliet’s theremin has far fewer harmonics associated with pitches and it’s low range has a vocal quality to it; if you place your tongue in the position for the sound an “L” makes (against the roof of your mouth, just behind your top front teeth), but you shape your lips and mouth as if your going to say “Oh,” and hum a note, that’s as close as I can come to describing it.

Saggini: Did you find the schematics of the instrument?

Rosser: Nothing in the way of schematics has surfaced.

Saggini: And what condition is it in? Does it need maintenance, and if so, have you already identified the technician who could take care of it?

Rosser: Juliet’s theremin functions. On a scale of 1 to 100, 100 being optimum functionality, I’d put the instrument at 80. Its high and mid ranges are fine. The stability in the lower range is compromised, sputtery, difficult to control. It’s got numerous cosmetic issues, two detached pieces of trim, scratches, the speaker grill is torn in places. There is someone who’s an expert at rebuilding, repairing and renovating early theremins. He’s looked extensively at the instrument, all of its component parts and also the handwriting inside.

Saggini: Have you already identified the institution to which the archive will be donated? And what about the digital copies? Will they be made available to everyone, perhaps on archive.org?

Rosser: We’re still in the process of finding an institution would like to house the collection. There are several under consideration. We’re in varying degrees of contact with each.

As regards all of the digitized materials, Sandra will have the entire digitized collection, whatever institution accepts the collection will have the entire digitized collection. At some point, once the fundraising is over and we have confirmation from an institution, the fundraising site will remain the Juliet Shaw Legacy Project, which will then feature many things, but probably not the entire collection. I was unfamiliar with archive.org, so I visited the site and it’s possible the collection might be placed there but it may depend to some degree upon any agreements we make with the institution and whether it wants to create an exhibit that people can visit.

Saggini: Is there an anecdote of Juliet’s thereministic career that particularly struck you? Can you tell us about it?

Rosser: Yes. Juliet Shaw used her talent for more than just performances and her own notoriety (which she certainly enjoyed as one can see when watching video interviews). She never toured the country and abroad like her contemporaries; she chose to remain local and supported a tremendous number of causes, raising money with her concertizing for decades. She raised funds for charities, the Red Cross, high school band uniforms, to name only a few. She championed both the theremin as well as countless other musicians and students, featuring their concerts at her own Sasqua Hills Music and Arts Center, and later at Silvemine. The Silvermine is still in operation, run by Sandra.

Saggini: In general, what did this experience mean for you as a thereminist?

Rosser: Primarily, just as with the tutorials I’ve posted since 2011, it is a way to contribute to the theremin culture and community. Simple as that. Bringing Juliet Shaw’s legacy out into the open for the first time is another contribution, one that really adds to the theremin’s history.

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