“What about a tuba?”: Clara Rockmore and the theremin

A recent email from the Girls Rock Camp Austin listserv (I wish I could quit you but I can’t bring myself to unsubscribe) reignited my interest in writing another post in an ongoing series about unusual instruments and the women who play them. So far, I’ve focused on Dorothy Ashby and the autoharp, Cocorosie and Y Pants’ use of toy instruments, and Little Boots and the Tenori-On (an instrument I’ve also seen Yuka Honda play in concert). Today, I thought I’d focus on the theremin.

I’ve actually mentioned this instrument before on the blog, once in a post when I explained why I was learning how to play the guitar and another where I gave a shout-out to Nouveller, Sarah Lipstate’s solo project.

I’m fascinated by this instrument. I first saw it in action when Lipstate took hers out and one of her house parties I attended when we were in college. The theremin is an electronic instrument cloaked in mystery, perhaps in part because its inventor’s ties with Soviet espionage during the Cold War and also because of its use of antennae to manipulate pitch and volume. During the post-war era, composers like Miklós Rózsa and Bernard Herrmann showcased the instrument in their work in part as a way to break from the constraints of traditional orchestral instrumentation and Romantic classical music’s almost dogmatic influence over Hollywood film score at the time.

In time, the theremin would become associated with science fiction because of its technological origins and otherworldly sound–in other words, its ability to signify the modernist tensions between man and machine. Rózsa harnessed the instrument’s emotional range, relying upon its eeriness to convey an alcoholic’s deteriorating mental state in the music he wrote for Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend and suggesting its ability to aurally represent the emotional longing of a damaged man in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound.

What especially interests me about the theremin is how it is played. I suppose there is a connotative detachment associated with an instrument that cannot be touched. But I also think there’s something progressive and potentially even queer about an object that relies upon the musician’s body–particularly his or her masterful, dexterous hands–to make sound. While hands tend to be used to guide pitch and frequency, punk brats like Jon Spencer prove that you can use other body parts to play the theremin and, in the process, possibly extend its queer potential. I’d also be interested in seeing how  instrumentalists with physical impairments play it, as the instrument serves as truly an extension of the performer and thus suggest any number of ways the body can be used to make sounds.

But I think what I love most about the theremin it is its complex emotional range. The damn thing sounds like the human psyche made material. Observe Clara Rockmore’s performance of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan.”

I’m floored by her poise and the aching beauty her graceful hands are able to divine out of the theremin. Her performance seems to at once bring to mind an aria’s technical virtuosity and a prayer’s quiet humanity. Rockmore also reminds us that the music produced by a theremin exists in the spaces between the body and the instrument. Some may argue that this unique to the theremin, but usually we can see what actions cause the sound produced from a plucked harp or a brushed snare. Physical contact provides confirmation. With the theremin we must imagine the aural space in between music and musician, and thus can never be sure where the instrument ends and the instrumentalist begins.

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