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Clara Rockmore, theremin master, put electronic music on the map

We'll never know what Clara Rockmore — commemorated in today's Google Doodle for being a pioneer in electronic music in the 1930s — would have thought of today's most popular musicians.

But Diplo, Skrillex, and other electronic musicians should honor Rockmore for her mastery of the genre of music that has evolved into today's chart toppers. She would have turned 105 today.

Rockmore, who immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1921, was a master of the theremin, an early electronic instrument played without any physical contact. The instrument is known for producing an eerie, almost Twilight Zone-ish sound that the entertainment world has long used as a soundtrack for science fiction films.

"I was fascinated by the aesthetic part of it, the visual beauty, the idea of playing in the air and I loved the sound," Rockmore is quoted saying on her foundation's webpage. "I tried it, and apparently showed some kind of immediate ability to manipulate it."

Rockmore had a unique way of playing the theremin, which gave way to modern-day synthesizers, maneuvering her fingers to have more control over the instrument's sounds.

How does the theremin work?

The instrument was invented in 1920 by Russian scientist Lev Termen (Léon Theremin in the US), using two antennas and an amplifier to broadcast sound.

A thereminist stands in front of the instrument and uses her hands to interrupt a magnetic field produced by the two antennas, one that controls for pitch and another for volume. The player can manipulate the position of her hands to produce different sine waves that are then amplified by a component within the theremin.

Watching Rockmore play the theremin is watching someone make music out of thin air:

Rockmore's initial prowess with the instrument pushed her to work with Termen to expand the instrument's capabilities from only three octaves to five. Her performances inspired other musicians to further develop the theremin, including pianist Josef Hofmann, who suggested changes to the instrument's display to make the player's hands more visible.

Clara Rockmore was the Skrillex of her day

Unlike today, electronic music was not at its height in the 1930s. Nonetheless, Rockmore's ability to create beautifully melodic sounds with the instrument put her amongst the most prestigious classical musicians of the time.

Rockmore performed as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Toronto Symphony and often alongside her sister, the famous pianist Nadia Reisenberg.

More significantly however, Rockmore's development of the instrument, which is considered the first synthesizer, made large strides in the electronic music world, paving away for the instruments that popular electronic artists use today.

Rockmore died in 1998. She released one commercial album in 1977 and has had many pieces released posthumously.


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